Most cases of bacterial meningitis are caused by one of 3 species of bacteria: Neisseria meningitidis (known as meningococcus); Haemophilus influenzae; and Streptococcus pneumoniae. These bacteria that can cause meningitis live in the external environment and, surprisingly, in the nasal passages of a proportion of the population without causing any problems.
Meningococcal infections — those caused by the meningococcus (Neisseria meningitidis, to give it its scientific name) — are the ones we are looking at here.
The meningococcus can cause meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord), and also septicaemia (blood poisoning) or a combination of both.
The meningococcus bacterium is transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes on you. This form of meningitis is one of the most serious bacterial diseases and can be fatal.
Risks for travellers
There have been major epidemics of meningococcal disease in recent years in northern India, Mongolia, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and the sub-Saharan areas of Africa. The disease is commonly seen in the dry seasons in Africa, particularly in areas extending from Mali to Ethiopia, which is often referred to as the ‘meningitis belt’.
There is normally a very low risk of contracting meningococcal disease except if you are travelling in areas where epidemics are currently occurring. You should always check with your doctor or a travellers’ health centre for information about major epidemic sites.
If you are travelling in identified high-risk areas, especially in the dry season, you should have a meningococcal vaccine for protection.
A single dose of meningococcal vaccine offers protection for up to 3 years in school children and adults, according to the NHMRC in Australia, and is recommended if you are travelling in current epidemic areas or staying in regions that have been known to be at risk of epidemics. The vaccine must also be administered at least 10-14 days before arriving.
This vaccine is different to meningococcal C conjugate vaccines, which are recommended at 12 months of age in the Australian Standard Vaccination Schedule and which offer protection against a type of meningococcus called serogroup C, which is common in Australia. The vaccine for travellers offers protection against 4 other serogroups.
Meningococcal vaccination is currently not required for entry into most countries. However, vaccination is required for pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the annual Hajj. If travelling to Mecca, you will need a vaccination certificate showing a meningococcal inoculation within the previous 3 years.
Last Reviewed: 11 October 2003