Perhaps you’ve seen the commercials: A young man with meningitis B is rushed to the emergency room after his mom discovers him passed out in the family’s bathroom. He had earlier attended a birthday party where he shared forkfuls of cake and drinking cups with his friends. He also kissed a girl. The assumption is that he quickly acquired the disease from someone at the party.
But does meningitis B really call for such dramatics and scare tactics? Is it deadly, or so easily spread?
Turns out it is, and it’s especially worrisome during the winter months for those at the greatest risk.
What is meningitis B?
Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the lining around the brain and spinal cord. Meningococcal disease is a rare, but serious illness caused by a type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis.
The bacterial is common and lives in people’s throats, but it can be devastating if it gets in your blood or spinal fluid. Meningococcal disease often occurs without warning – even among people who are otherwise healthy.
There are a dozen types of meningitidis, called “serogroups," and serogroup B is the most common. It’s often called meningitis B or MenB.
How common is it?
MenB is unusual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated fewer than 300 cases occur in the United States per year.
Meningococcal disease is seasonal, with the number of cases generally peaking in January, February and March.
Who gets it?
Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but certain people are at increased risk, including infants, adolescents and young adults ages 16 through 23.
College campuses present a concern because people live in close proximity, such as in dorms. Living together with lots of people is one of the risk factors of MenB. Close proximity for a long time can help the disease spread.
Other risk groups include people with certain medical conditions that affect the immune system, microbiologists who routinely work with isolates of N. meningitides and those in a community where there is a meningitis outbreak.
How does it spread?
MenB is a close-contact illness. Sharing utensils, kissing or anything that will transmit body fluids can spread the disease. It’s not airborne, so simply being in the same classroom or breathing the same air won’t make it spread. Spreading happens through the sharing of fluids. You can get MenB if someone coughs in your face or shakes hands after coughing into their own hand. Most of the time, the person spreading it has some symptoms before they visibly become ill. There is a three- to four-day incubation period.
What are the symptoms?
Signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease are usually sudden onset of fever, headache and stiff neck. It can start with symptoms similar to the flu and will often also cause nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light, rash and confusion. Later on it can cause a rash all over the body. It looks like little bruises, which is a sign it’s in the blood stream. There might be a cough, sore throat or upper respiratory discomfort.
What should you do?
If you have a fever, headache and stiff neck, you may need prompt medical attention. Go to urgent care or an emergency physician. Contact your primary care provider if you’ve been in contact with someone who has meningitis or are in an area where there was an outbreak.
How deadly is it?
Even when it’s treated, meningococcal disease kills 10 to 15 infected people out of 100, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And of those who survive, about 10 to 20 out of every 100 will suffer disabilities such as hearing loss, brain damage, kidney damage, amputations, nervous system problems or severe scars from skin grafts.
Because it can cause swelling in the brain and spinal cord, there are cases where it can be deadly within 24 hours.
Is there a vaccine?
Two serogroup B meningococcal vaccines – Bexsero and Trumenba – have been licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine be given routinely to people 10 years or older who are at increased risk for serogroup B meningococcal infections, including:
- People at risk because of a serogroup B meningococcal disease outbreak
- Anyone whose spleen is damaged or has been removed
- Anyone with a rare immune system condition called persistent complement component deficiency
- Anyone taking the drug eculizumab (also called Soliris)
- Microbiologists who routinely work with isolates of N. meningitidis
These vaccines also may be given to anyone 16 through 23 years old to provide short-term protection against most strains of serogroup B meningococcal disease. The preferred ages for vaccination are 16 through 18.
For best protection, more than one dose of a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine is needed. Ask your healthcare provider about the number and timing of doses.
Melissa Davis specializes in family medicine and adolescent health care at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. She rated in the top 10 percent of physicians in the nation for patient satisfaction in 2017.