The Facts about Meningitis

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 7:50am

Useful Answers to Questions about this Disease

The second reported death due to meningitis has generated both strong media coverage and public concern. Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) nurses are actively investigating the recent death of the Mt. Horeb student to identify all people who had close contact with the student. Those people will be advised to get specific antibiotic treatment to help prevent further infections.

While bacterial meningitis is a very serious disease, it is relatively rare and its occurrences can be random and unexpected. Following is a list of frequently asked questions about meningitis with answers that will help people get a clearer understanding of this challenging disease.

What is meningitis?
Bacterial meningitis is an inflammation of the tissues that cover the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by one of several different bacteria. The bacteria that caused the two recent Dane County fatalities was Neisseria meningitidis.

What are the symptoms and how soon do they appear?
Symptoms can appear quickly over a day or two. Most often, symptoms occur within 3 to 4 days of exposure, but as early as 2 and as late as 10 days after exposure.
Early symptoms can include: high fever, headache, nausea and vomiting, followed later by: stiff neck, sleepiness, confusion, seizures, and unconsciousness.

The symptoms in infants are somewhat more difficult to assess, but the ill infant can be lethargic, irritable or have feeding problems, including vomiting.

Once infected with meningococcal meningitis, the disease may prove fatal to as many as 15% of those affected.

Who is at risk to get the disease?
While many people carry the meningococcal bacteria in their nose and throat (up to 5-10% of the population can carry this bacterium at any time), it is not well understood why only some of these people are susceptible to this disease. There may be a variety of immune system problems, physical factors, or other underlying illness that leads to the development of the disease.

To reduce one's risk, anyone who has had close/intimate contact with the ill person within the week previous to the onset of illness should receive preventive treatment as soon as possible. Treatment consists of one of several antibiotics designed to stop any infection.

What constitutes close and intimate contact?
• Immediate household members
• Individuals with whom the ill person has shared eating utensils, shared drinking cups or glasses, eaten out of the same dish or bowl
• Persons who have been kissed by the ill person
• Persons who have performed resuscitation or other medical procedures may have some risk.

Individuals who are close contacts should monitor themselves for signs of illness, particularly fever, and seek medical care promptly if these symptoms appear. Other individuals who are not sure if their exposure requires preventive treatment should contact the PHMDC Communicable Disease Intake Nurse at 266-4821.

What about others who may have had less close contact such as in school?
People who may have had less close contact with an infected person, such as contact in school or at a shopping mall, are not considered to be at risk and do not require preventive treatment.

How Can Meningitis Be Prevented?
A vaccine is available to protect against several of the strains of meningococcal meningitis. While the vaccine does not provide protection against all forms of the disease, it does cover most strains. Since it takes between 7 to 10 days for the vaccine to provide immunity, the vaccine cannot substitute for preventive antibiotic treatment of close contacts and is not approved for such use. It may however be given at the same time as the treatment.

More information about vaccines is available at:

For more detailed information about meningitis vaccine, see

For more details about meningitis, see


Public Health Madison & Dane County


  • Jeff Golden(608) 243-0302