Meningococcal Disease: Deadly Dangerous
By William Klepack, M.D., Medical Director,
Tompkins County Health Department
Meningococcal meningitis is one of those diseases that give physicians
nightmares. This potentially fatal bacterial infection starts out with symptoms
similar to those of the flu. Within a matter of hours, however, this disease
can cause inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and widespread infection
throughout the body. Even with the advantage of modern medicine and powerful
antibiotics, meningococcal (bacterial) meningitis has a high fatality rate: in
this country, five to fifteen percent of those who contract it will die from
it, even with medical treatment.
By comparison, viral meningitis is relatively benign and much more common.
While it is unpleasant, viral meningitis is not nearly as serious as bacterial
Who is most at risk for meningitis?
While bacterial meningitis is not a common disease, it occurs most often in
organizational settings where people live in close contact. This trend is
especially significant in Tompkins
County, where thousands
of college students live in dormitory settings.
The risk peaks in late winter and early spring. Data from the CDC show that
college freshmen living in dorms are six times more likely to contract the
disease than other college students are.
What are the symptoms of bacterial
The onset of symptoms is typically sudden and strongly resembles the flu.
Early symptoms include headache, fever, nausea, and fatigue. As the infection
progresses over the course of just a few hours, symptoms include a stiff neck
and intense headache, extreme fatigue, sensitivity to light, and often a fairly
distinct rash of either tiny dots or big blotches. If you push on the skin, the
color does not blanch as it does with most other rashes. If left untreated, a
person with bacterial meningitis may become delirious, sleepy, and eventually
slip into a coma.
How is it diagnosed and treated?
Early diagnosis is critically important and involves culturing blood and
spinal fluid because that is where the infection is. Treatment is the urgent
use of antibiotics. People with bacterial meningitis are treated in the
hospital because the infection's rapid progression requires significant medical
support and intravenous fluids. Falling blood pressure and rapid pulse can send
people into shock, which can be fatal.
Why is bacterial meningitis so
This disease can be fatal even in healthy young adults. It affects the meninges, which are the membranes that cover the brain and
spinal cord. As the infection spreads, it can lead to an overall infection of
other body organs and systems. The bacteria behave differently in different
people, and while most people recover fully from bacterial meningitis with
treatment, as many as one in five may suffer from permanent disability.
How is bacterial meningitis prevented?
Hygienic measures are an excellent first line of defense against many
diseases, including meningitis. Frequent hand washing is important. The bacteria
can be passed through saliva, so the sharing of drinking glasses, bottled
water, and soda cans should be avoided. If you have been exposed to someone
diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, you should see a doctor immediately to
begin a course of antibiotics as a preventive measure.
One of the best steps you can take for prevention is to consider being
vaccinated before you go off to college and for certain types of travel. And
don't wait until the last minute to be vaccinated because some vaccines take a
month or two to be fully protective.
This is a frightening disease with a well-earned reputation. Keep yourself
safe by following good hygiene practices, and talk with your doctor about your
own risks. Above all, if you experience the sudden onset of the symptoms of
bacterial meningitis, seek medical care immediately.
is on the medical staff of Cayuga Medical Center and is in practice with Dryden
Family Medicine, where he can be reached at (607)844-8181.