Fact Sheet on Meningococcal Disease


This fact sheet provides basic general information only and is to be used as a quick guide, not as a complete resource on the subject. If you have any further questions, ask your own physician, local health unit or health care worker.


What is it?

Meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria (Neisseria meningitidis). When these bacteria get into the blood or spinal fluid they result in systemic infection.

How is it spread?

Meningococcal disease is spread through close contact with the infected person's respiratory secretions. Examples of exposure include mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, being coughed in the face by an infected patient, and suctioning or intubation of an infected patient without wearing a mask.

The period of communicability is 7 days before onset of symptoms to 24 hours following the start of appropriate therapy.

Signs and Symptoms of Meningococcal Disease

Meningococcal meningitis is an infection of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms are fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting, and sometimes a rash. Meningococcal septicemia (meningococcemia), infection of the blood, presents with symptoms of acute febrile illness, occasionally associated with a rash.

Prevention of Transmission

Patients diagnosed with meningococcal disease (or whenever there is a suspicion of infection) should be placed on Respiratory Isolation until the patient has received effective therapy for 24 hours. A private room is required, but a negative pressure room is not necessary. Infection Control and the Health Unit must be notified immediately to identify and follow contacts.

Followup of Contacts

Chemoprophylaxis should be given, as soon as possible, to close contacts of patients diagnosed with meningococcal disease (ie. staff exposed to respiratory secretions, household contacts, day care contacts). Staff who have just been in the same room with an infected patient do not require treatment, as there is little risk of getting the disease in this way.


There is a vaccine available for some of the meningococcal bacteria, and this may be used in large outbreak situations. However, the vaccine does not work against all types of meningococcal strains, and may not work in all situations.

Rifampin is the drug of choice for treating meningococcal disease and contacts of meningococcus. Rifampin may stain feces, urine, saliva and tears a red-orange colour. Contact lens wearers should not wear lenses during treatment. Rifampin may also interfere with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives, and is contraindicated in pregnancy and in children.