Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the brain and has many causes including bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic. A particular bacterium called "meningococcus" can be aggressive and lead very quickly to a life threatening illness. Meningococcus causes epidemics of meningitis especially in some countries in Africa (across the meningitis belt) and some parts of Asia and South America. There are multiple strains
(sub-types) of meningococcal bacteria, and these may differ from country to country.
The bacteria enter the body through the upper respiratory tract. The bacteria can be caught by inhalation (e.g. when an infected person coughs or sneezes on someone), by direct mouth to mouth contact with an infected person, or by indirect contact (e.g. by touching one's nose after touching an object that is contaminated by an infected person's nasal secretions).
Meningococcus does no harm at all in most people. In some people, however - especially children less than 5 years old and young healthy adults - serious infections can occur, especially when a new strain in encountered. The incubation period is 1 to 10 days. The bacteria are particularly attracted to the lining of the brain, and can travel up into the small vessels inside the brain's lining and deposit there. The symptoms of meningitis then begin with a severe headache and high fever, progressing to drowsiness, confusion and seizures. Neck stiffness, vomiting and a rash are other features. Meningococcal meningitis can be treated successfully with antibiotics if the infection is recognised in its early stages, but it is possible for serious illness or death to occur within 24 – 48 hours. If you are travelling in an area away from medical care, it may be important to arrange vaccination. If possible, avoid crowded areas such as public transport and market places as people may cough and sneeze in close proximity, increasing your risk of exposure to bacteria.
The disease is most common in poor and overcrowded areas and increases in the winter and spring. Epidemics occur frequently in the Sub-Saharan "meningitis belt" across the middle of Africa, especially during December to June. It also occurs on an irregular basis in other countries. Common strains overseas are A, C, W and Y.
In Australia there are a handful of severe cases of meningococcal infection each year. Here in Western Australia the majority of cases are due to the Meningococcal strains B and C.
Places where travellers should be aware of the possibility of being exposed to meningococcal infection include the following:
Central African Republic
Saudia Arabia (see below *)
Democratic Republic of the Congo
*All pilgrimage visitors to Saudi Arabia are required by law to have Meningitis vaccine prior to travel
Meningococcal meningitis is preventable by vaccination.
If possible stay away from crowded areas frequented by local inhabitants, avoid other close physical contact and be diligent with hand washing. Seek medical advice at once if you are concerned that you may have contracted meningococcal infection.