Meningococcal meningitis is an infection caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitis, and is a severe bacterial infection of the brain which is transmitted from person to person through saliva and respiratory secretions, usually coughing, sneezing or talking, or any similar in person contact. Meningitis occurs everywhere, but is most commonly found in parts of sub-Sharan Africa, where vaccination is not common and infection occurs in rural, developing areas. However, if you have not been previously vaccinated you are at risk of contracting meningitis no matter where you travel. As this disease can be fatal if contracted, quick medical attention if suspected is very important, and severe cases are unpleasant and often deadly.
What are the Symptoms of Meningitis?
Meningococcal disease symptoms vary based on the type of illness that develops, and is experienced differently by sufferers. The most commonly seen symptoms include sudden fever, headache, stiff neck, poor reflexes, and light sensitivity. If the disease infects the blood is can cause symptoms such as tiredness, vomiting, cold hands and feet, aches and chills, diarrhea and a dark purple rash. When fatal, death can occur in as little as a few hours, which is why quick response upon suspect meningitis is imperative. Children may experience different symptoms than adults.
Where am I Most at Risk of Contracting Meningococcal Disease?
Anyone not vaccinated can get meningococcal disease, but certain groups of people are more at risk. While the disease is found worldwide, portions of sub-Saharan Africa have the highest rates in the world, and the disease is most common in these parts during dry season. Travellers who spend time in the meningitis belt of Africa during outbreaks have the highest chance of getting the disease. Similarly, participants in the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia are also at increased risk. The government of Saudi Arabia requires proof of vaccination for all participants in the pilgrimage.
While the disease occurs worldwide, those most at risk are travellers who have not been vaccinated, and those who travel through rural and developing portions of the world.
What Can I do to Prevent Meningitis?
First and foremost, you need to get vaccinated before you travel anywhere, especially if you plan to visit sub-Saharan Africa. Meningitis vaccinations are common in developed countries, and many children are routinely vaccinated against the meningococcal disease in Canada and the United States. Check your vaccination record to see whether you have been given this vaccination before. However, if you are travelling through Africa or to areas where outbreaks are common, you may require a specific vaccination called quadrivalent meningococcal conjugate vaccine, as it protects against the specific strains of the disease found in these areas. Meningitis boosters are also recommended, especially if spending prolonged periods of time in affected areas. Book your travel consultation today at ABC Travel Clinic to learn more about the recommendations for Meningitis.
You can take measures to reduce your exposure to germs when travelling by washing your hands often, taking along and using alcohol-based hand sanitizer, avoiding contact with your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands, covering your nose with your sleeve or a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and avoiding contact with sick people.
Vaccines against meningitis take between 7 and 10 days to develop protection, so plan ahead before travelling to ensure complete protection.
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (2017). Meningococcal disease. Retrieved from: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/diseases/meningococcal-disease
Government of Canada (2017), Travel and health safety information: Meningococcal meningitis. Retrieved from: https://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/im/vpd-mev/meningococcal-eng.php
World Health Organization (2015). Meningococcal meningitis, countries or areas at high risk 2014. Retrieved from: https://gamapserver.who.int/mapLibrary/Files/Maps/Global_MeningitisRisk_ITHRiskMap.png?ua=1
World Health Organization (2017), Meningitis information. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs141/en/