Meningococcal Disease: Frequently Asked Questions

Meningococcal disease, though rare, is a serious infection and needs to be treated right away. Review the frequently asked questions below to learn more about meningococcal disease and how to protect yourself.

About the Disease

Meningococcal disease is a rare but serious infection caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus). Meningococcal disease includes meningitis (infection of the thin lining covering the brain and spinal cord) and meningococcemia (infection of the blood). The infection can also occur as pneumonia (an infection of the lungs) or in the joints, such as the knees. Fewer than one in 100,000 people in the Unites States are infected with the disease each year.

Anyone can get meningococcal disease. Infants 12 months or younger have the highest rates of disease. Clusters of cases and outbreaks do occur but are rare in the United States.

The disease can be fatal if not treated right away. Brain damage, hearing loss, loss of limbs and kidney failure are other risks.

Bacterial meningitis is contagious, but generally is transmitted through direct exchange of respiratory and throat secretions by close personal contact, such as coughing, sharing drinks, kissing and being in close proximity for an extended period. Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis are as contagious as the common cold or the flu, and they are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been.

Although most people exposed to the meningococcus bacteria do not become seriously ill, some may develop fever, headache, vomiting, and a stiff neck. Other symptoms may include nausea, confusion and sensitivity to light. Later in the illness, a rash that looks like purple blotches or spots on the arms, legs and torso may appear. 

Symptoms may occur 2 to 10 days after exposure, but usually within 5 days. Symptoms can develop over several hours, or may take a few days.

An infected person may be contagious from the time he or she is first infected until the bacteria is no longer present in fluid from their nose and throat, typically after one day of antibiotics.

5 to 25 percent of people may carry the bacteria in their nose or throat without getting sick, while still being contagious to others. This carrier state may last for days or months before spontaneously disappearing. Most cases of meningitis are acquired through exposure to these asymptomatic carriers.

Health care providers diagnose meningococcal disease by testing for the bacteria in a sample of blood or spinal fluid.

Several antibiotics are very effective in treating meningococcal disease. Treatment should be started immediately. Most people with meningitis are hospitalized and treated with antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the infection, other treatments may also be necessary.

Only people who have been in close contact for long periods of time with the ill person (household members, intimate contacts, health care personnel performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, day care center playmates, etc.) need to be considered for preventive treatment. If you were in close contact with a person with meningococcal disease, your physician will usually prescribe an antibiotic. Casual contact, for example, the type that might occur in a regular classroom, office or other work setting, or when handling food is not usually considered close contact.

The bacteria that causes meningococcal disease does not survive well on surfaces and is not believed to be transmitted other than from person to person. There is no evidence showing that people are at risk of catching the infection by touching surfaces like doorknobs or keyboards. No special cleaning is necessary.

Students experiencing high fever with or without headache, stiff neck and other symptoms of meningitis should be examined at Columbia Health. Faculty and staff should go to the local emergency room or see their healthcare provider.  Visitors and those off-campus should go to the local emergency room.

Do NOT share anything that comes in contact with the mouth, including:

  • water bottles
  • lip balm
  • toothbrushes
  • towels
  • drinking glasses
  • eating utensils
  • cosmetics
  • smoking materials
  • food or drink from common source (e.g., punch bowl)

Do not cough into another person's face. Cough into your sleeve or a tissue. Wash or sanitize hands frequently. Make sure your vaccinations are up to date.

The Centers for Disease control does not recommend wearing a surgical mask to prevent exposure.

The New York City Department of Health and the US Centers for Disease Control have not recommended cancelling events or avoiding contact with students, unless a specific risk has been identified. In these rare cases, you will be notified by your event organizer.

You can contact Columbia Health on 212-854-7426 or health@cumc.columbia.edu.

About the Meningitis Type B Vaccine

There are currently several vaccines that protect against meningococcal disease (referred to as A, C, W, and Y). Two serogroup B meningococcal disease (MenB) vaccines are currently licensed for use in the United States: Trumenba® (Pfizer) and Bexsero® (GlaxoSmithKline). Talk to your health care provider about which vaccine is best for you.

Use of the serogroup B meningococcal (MenB) vaccine falls into two categories. The first is the group of persons identified to be at increased risk because of a serogroup B meningococcal disease outbreak. Based on discussions with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Columbia Health recommends meningococcal serogroup B vaccination for students enrolled in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

The second group is adolescents and young adults who may elect to be vaccinated with MenB vaccines to provide maximum protection against most strains of serogroup B meningococcal disease. These individuals should have an individual appointment with their clinician to determine if vaccination is appropriate.

Vaccination for faculty and staff at Columbia University is also not recommended at this time. Reach out to your healthcare provider if you would like to discuss vaccination further.

Based on the current recommendation, the vaccine is being offered at no charge to SIPA students.

For students in other schools, if you meet with your healthcare provider at Columbia Health and the vaccine is recommended, the cost will be submitted to Aetna if you are covered by the Columbia University Student Health Insurance Plan. If you have an alternate insurance plan, you will be charged the cost of each vaccine, which is $150, and you will be given the receipt to submit to your insurance company for reimbursement. Please check with your insurance company regarding coverage.

For faculty and staff, the university is not offering the vaccine as it is not recommended in most cases. Please check with your healthcare provider and your insurance carrier if you would like to discuss your individual needs.

Two doses, given at separate times at least one month apart, are needed for maximum protection.

The second dose is recommended for maximum protection against meningitis type B. Since protection provided by the first dose declines over time, the second dose is needed to maintain protection. You can think of the first dose as providing "C" immunity against meningitis type B. The second dose of the vaccine is needed to provide "A+" immunity against meningitis type B. Many vaccines require more than one dose. The meningitis B vaccine is not unusual in this respect.

The second dose is the same vaccine as the first dose. The second dose acts as a booster. Since protection provided by the first dose declines over time, it is important to get a second dose for full immunity against meningitis type B.

Because the first and second doses are the same vaccine, there is no difference in possible side-effects.  The most common side effect experienced is pain at the injection site that goes away in 2 to 7 days.  However, it is possible for an individual to react differently to each dose, so your side effects might not be exactly the same.

This vaccine has been licensed in the United States since 2014. To date, there have been no serious adverse events following vaccination, and the most common side effect reported is soreness in the arm.

Individuals who already received the first dose must get a second dose in order to be fully protected against meningitis caused by serogroup B. It is also important that individuals continue to limit the spread of the disease to others by increasing hygiene practices and not sharing items that come in contact with the mouth such as drinking cups, eating utensils, or smoking materials.

If you are a student in another Columbia University school other than SIPA, please schedule an appointment with your clinician at Columbia Health to discuss the appropriateness of the vaccine for you.

If you are experiencing health issues other than a sore arm, please report this information to Columbia Health at 212-854-7426. If you feel that you may need medical attention, go to Medical Services (John Jay Hall, 4th Floor) or your healthcare provider. For severe health concerns, go to the local emergency room.

The CDC vaccine information sheet has more information about the vaccine, as does the CDC website.

All other questions about meningitis Type B vaccine safety, efficacy, approvals, risk factors and other concerns are addressed on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's website.