Meningococci (Neisseria meningitidis) cause meningitis and septicemia. Symptoms, usually severe, include headache, nausea, vomiting, photophobia, lethargy, rash, multiple organ failure, shock, and disseminated intravascular coagulation. Diagnosis is clinical, confirmed by culture. Treatment is penicillin or a 3rd-generation cephalosporin.
Worldwide, the incidence of endemic meningococcal disease is 0.5 to 5/100,000, with an increased number of cases during winter and spring in temperate climates. Local outbreaks occur most frequently in sub-Saharan Africa between Senegal and Ethiopia, an area known as the meningitis belt. In major African epidemics, attack rates range from 100 to 800/100,000.
In the US, the annual incidence ranges from 0.5 to 1.1/100,000. Most cases are sporadic, typically in children < 2 yr; < 2% occur in outbreaks. Outbreaks tend to occur in semiclosed communities (eg, military recruit camps, college dormitories, schools, day-care centers) and often involve patients aged 5 to 19 yr.
Diseases Caused by Meningococci
Over 90% of meningococcal infections involve
Infections of lungs, joints, respiratory passageways, GU organs, eyes, endocardium, and pericardium are less common.
Meningococci can colonize the oropharynx and nasopharynx of asymptomatic carriers. A combination of factors is probably responsible for transition from carrier state to invasive disease. Despite documented high rates of colonization, transition to invasive disease is rare and occurs primarily in previously uninfected patients. Transmission usually occurs via direct contact with respiratory secretions from a nasopharyngeal carrier. Carrier rates rise dramatically during epidemics.
After invading the body, N. meningitidis causes meningitis and severe bacteremia in children and adults, resulting in profound vascular effects. Infection can rapidly become fulminant and is associated with a mortality rate of 10 to 15%. Of patients who recover, 10 to 15% have serious sequelae, such as permanent hearing loss, intellectual disability, or loss of phalanges or limbs.
Children aged 6 mo to 3 yr are the most frequently infected. Other high-risk groups include adolescents, military recruits, college freshmen living in dormitories, people with complement deficiencies, and microbiologists working with N. meningitidis isolates. Infection or vaccination confers serogroup-specific immunity.
Symptoms and Signs
Patients with meningitis frequently report fever, headache, and stiff neck (see Acute Bacterial Meningitis). Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, photophobia, and lethargy. A maculopapular or hemorrhagic petechial rash often appears soon after disease onset. Meningeal signs are often apparent during physical examination. Fulminant meningococcemia syndromes include Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome (septicemia, profound shock, cutaneous purpura, adrenal hemorrhage), sepsis with multiple organ failure, shock, and disseminated intravascular coagulation. A rare, chronic meningococcemia causes recurrent mild symptoms.
Neisseria are small, gram-negative cocci readily identified with Gram stain and by other standard bacteriologic identification methods. Serologic methods, such as latex agglutination and coagglutination tests, allow rapid presumptive diagnosis of N. meningitides in blood, CSF, synovial fluid, and urine. However, both positive and negative results should be confirmed by culture. PCR for N. meningitidis has been developed but is not commercially available.
While awaiting definitive identification of the causal organism, immunocompetent adults suspected of having meningococcal infection are given a 3rd-generation cephalosporin (eg, cefotaxime 2 g IV q 6 h, ceftriaxone 2 g IV q 12 h) plus vancomycin 500 to 750 mg IV q 6 h or 1 g IV q 12 h or q 8 h. In immunocompromised patients and patients > 50 yr, coverage for Listeria monocytogenes should be considered by adding ampicillin 2 g IV q 4 h.
Once N. meningitidis has been definitively identified, the preferred treatment is ceftriaxone 2 g IV q 12 h or penicillin 4 million units IV q 4 h.
Corticosteroids decrease the incidence of neurologic complications in children and adults. When corticosteroids are used, they should be given with or before the first dose of antibiotics. Dexamethasone 0.15 mg/kg IV q 6 h in children (10 mg q 6 h in adults) is given for 4 days.
Close contacts of people with meningococcal disease are at increased risk of acquiring disease and should receive a prophylactic antibiotic. Options include
Azithromycin is not routinely recommended, but a recent study showed that a single 500-mg dose was equivalent to rifampin for chemoprophylaxis and so could be an alternative for patients with contraindications to recommended drugs.
Ciprofloxacin-resistant meningococcal disease has been reported in several countries (Greece, England, Wales, Australia, Spain, Argentina, France, India). More recently, 2 US states (North Dakota, Minnesota) reported ciprofloxacin-resistant meningococci and so recommended that ciprofloxacin chemoprophylaxis not be used as preventive treatment for people who have had close contact with someone diagnosed with meningococcal disease.
A meningococcal conjugate vaccine is available in the US. The vaccine includes 4 of the 5 serogroups of meningococcus (all but B). A one-time routine vaccination is recommended for all children between the age of 11 and 18 yr. Vaccination is also recommended for people who are aged 19 to 55 and at risk, including military recruits, college freshmen living in a dormitory, travelers to hyperendemic or epidemic areas, and people with laboratory or industrial exposure to N. meningitidis aerosols. Adults and children aged 2 to 10 yr with terminal complement component deficiencies or functional or actual asplenia should also be vaccinated.
Last full review/revision September 2009 by Carlene A. Muto, MD, MS
Content last modified May 2013