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Epidemiology of Neisseria meningitidis infection

Michael Apicella, MD
Section Editors
Stephen B Calderwood, MD
Sheldon L Kaplan, MD
Deputy Editor
Elinor L Baron, MD, DTMH


Meningococcal disease, especially meningococcal meningitis, is one of the most devastating infections in an individual or community; reports of documented or suspected cases can engender considerable panic, even among well-informed hospital personnel. Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is the fact that meningitis due to Neisseria meningitidis tends to strike young, previously well individuals and can progress over a matter of hours to death.

Mortality can be very high if the infection is not treated appropriately, and long-term sequelae can be severe even in successfully managed cases. The mortality and morbidity from meningococcal disease has changed very little since the 1950s, principally due to the inability to effectively manage the endotoxin-induced vascular collapse frequently caused by this organism.

N. meningitidis can cause both endemic and epidemic infection. Large numbers of individuals can become infected in a population within a short space of time. With the reduction in cases of meningitis due to Haemophilus influenzae, N. meningitidis has now become the second leading cause of meningitis in the United States. The majority of cases of meningococcal infection occur in young children and teenagers.

This pathogen has the added capacity to cause epidemics in which all age groups in the entire population become at risk. While the worst of these epidemics have recently been largely confined to less well-developed areas of the world, epidemics have occurred in areas of Europe and North America where there are very high standards of living. Epidemic meningococcal infection can be a terrifying experience for the population affected. The progression of disease can be very rapid. The clinical features can be quite dramatic with profound shock, subcutaneous and gingival hemorrhage, thrombosis of vessels to extremities, delirium, and coma leading to death within 24 hours.

The epidemiology of infections due to N. meningitidis will be reviewed here. The microbiology, pathobiology, clinical features, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of this infection are discussed separately. (See "Microbiology and pathobiology of Neisseria meningitidis" and "Clinical manifestations of meningococcal infection" and "Diagnosis of meningococcal infection" and "Treatment and prevention of meningococcal infection" and "Meningococcal vaccines".)

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Jul 25, 2017.
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