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Meningococcal meningitis is an acute bacterial disease that can cause systemic infection. There are 13 different serogroups of meningitis of which groups B and C are most common in the UK. Serogroup A and the less common W135 can cause serious epidemics which occur predominantly in the African meningitis belt from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east. These serotypes have also been responsible for outbreaks in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj pilgrimages and in the city of Moscow in Russia in the past.
The disease is transmitted by sneezing, coughing or direct contact with respiratory secretions. The bacteria are found in the nasal passages of healthy individuals. Around 25% of adolescents and 5-11% of adults carry the bacteria.
Symptoms of meningitis usually include one or more of the following;
- Sudden onset of fever
- Intense headache
- Photophobia (intolerance of light)
- Stiff neck
- Petechial rash (blood spots under the skin)
If one or more of the symptoms above occur, medical attention must be sought immediately.
Antibiotic treatment is usually commenced as soon as meningococcal disease is suspected. It may also be necessary to give antibiotic treatment to close contacts of patients confirmed as having meningitis.
Recommendations for Travellers
Respiratory infections are often difficult to prevent but following basic personal hygiene etiquette when coughing and sneezing can help. Avoiding overcrowded areas such as busy markets and local transport may also reduce risk of exposure but may not always be practical.
Vaccines to protect against multiple strains of meningococcal meningitis for travellers are available: Menveo and Nimenrix. Individuals should consider being vaccinated if they are travelling to a country where meningococcal meningitis is present and where their stay maybe prolonged or they are involved in activities which may increase the risk of exposure to the disease, for example, working in a healthcare setting and living closely with the local population.
Pilgrims travelling to Saudi Arabia for Hajj are required to have a valid certificate of vaccination against the disease for visa purposes.