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Am I in danger from meningococcal meningitis?

Yes, you are in danger from meningococcal meningitis. This infection of the membranes encasing the brain and spinal cord can be contracted worldwide. Meningitis is very dangerous and should be considered a medical emergency. If it progresses to a systemic infection (septicemia), about 5–10% of patients will die, often within 48 hours of infection. It can also result in permanent nerve or brain damage.

Suspected meningitis is a medical emergency and if you think you or someone you are caring for has meningitis, see a doctor as soon as possible. Do not wait until you get back to Canada. Do not wait for the rash to appear.

How is meningococcal meningitis spread?

About 25% of healthy adolescents and 5–11% of healthy adults carry the bacteria that cause meningococcal meningitis, mainly in the nasal passages. The bacteria are transmitted via respiratory droplets and secretions expelled when coughing and sneezing. This can make it difficult to avoid, particularly during seasons when coughs and colds are common.

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Meningitis symptoms include:

  • blood spots under the skin, which form a blotchy rash that does not fade when pressed with a glass
  • drowsiness and confusion.
  • intense headache
  • irritability in the presence of light
  • nausea and vomiting
  • seizures
  • stiff neck
  • sudden fever

Meningitis is a medical emergency. Seek help if you suspect you or someone you are caring for has meningococcal meningitis.

The Government of Canada has information about how travellers can avoid meningococcal meningitis.

Which countries have a high incidence of meningitis?

Although you can catch meningitis anywhere in the world, it is particularly dangerous in the meningitis belt of Sub-Saharan Africa. Countries in the meningitis belt are: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan and South Sudan.

If you are a Hajj or Umrah pilgrim travelling to Saudi Arabia, you will need to produce a certificate of vaccination against meningococcal meningitis to obtain a visa. Canadian Travel Clinics can give you the injection and provide you with a certificate. Ask about our pilgrimage package.

Which travellers are more likely to contract meningococcal meningitis?

Whenever the risk of contracting a respiratory infection is higher, the risk of catching meningococcal meningitis also increases. In the African meningitis belt the dry season (December–June) is peak time for respiratory infections.

If you are travelling to work in healthcare, as a volunteer or if you are planning a homestay – that is staying in the homes of local residents, you may be at increased risk from meningitis. Infections are also associated with mass gatherings such as markets, weddings, funerals and festivals.

How can I avoid meningococcal meningitis?

There is a vaccine available for meningococcal meningitis. Canadians may already be protected under the normal vaccine schedule, but you should check your medical records if you are not sure. Ask a specialist travel nurse – such as those at Canadian Travel Clinics – for more advice.

You can also protect yourself with careful handwashing. Don’t share cups, toothbrushes, lip balm and the like. And avoid crowded spaces if at all possible.