How To Help Prevent the Spread of Meningitis B

Learn how MenB infections spread through asymptomatic carriers.

The MenB vaccine can help protect against the bacteria that cause meningitis B.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, membranes that protect the spinal cord and brain. The most common causes of meningitis are viral and bacterial infections.

Meningitis B (MenB) is one type of bacterial meningitis and is caused by infection with serogroup B of meningococcal bacteria. While MenB is very rare compared to other diseases, it can have devastating effects for those who contract it.

In addition to causing inflammation in the meninges, the bacteria can also enter the bloodstream, causing a severe infection called meningococcal septicemia. With meningococcal septicemia, the infection damages the blood vessels and reduces the normal supply of blood to the skin, extremities, and vital organs. This can lead to serious complications, including loss of limbs and organ failure. Between 10 and 15 percent of infections are fatal.

Another factor that makes MenB so devastating is that it can worsen very quickly—even within a few hours from the start of symptoms. Early medical treatment is critical, and antibiotics will be administered anytime bacterial meningitis is suspected without waiting for confirmation from diagnostic tests.

Transmission of MenB

About 1 in 10 people are carriers of meningococcal bacteria, the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease. Carriers don’t show any symptoms of disease and can unknowingly transmit bacteria to others through saliva and respiratory droplets.

People of all ages can get MenB, but older teens and college-age young adults make up a significant percentage of patients—and a number of outbreaks on college campuses have occurred in the past decade. This is due in part to the fact that some habits and behaviors that are typical among older teens and college-age young adults can promote the transmission of MenB.

Here are some common ways that MenB can be spread among this age group:

  • Sharing utensils, makeup, or other items. Using the same water bottle as a friend, borrowing some lip balm, or sharing a towel can increase the risk of meningococcal bacteria being passed from one person to another.
  • Living in close quarters. Because the bacteria that cause MenB are highly contagious, it has the potential to cause local epidemics on college campuses and other places where young adults are living in close proximity to one another (and coughing and sneezing around one another).
  • Kissing. Intimate behaviors such as kissing can facilitate the spread of the disease if someone is infected.
  • Touching your face. In a single day, the average person touches their face multiple times, often without thinking about it. We may rub our eyes when we’re tired or bite our nails when we’re nervous. Unfortunately, the sinuses, throat, eyes, and ears are potential gateways for bacterial meningitis (as well as other infectious agents).

Because MenB can cause serious illness or death, it’s important to talk to kids and teens about prevention. Refraining from sharing items that could carry saliva, such as water bottles, utensils, lip balm, or even towels, can help prevent the transmission of meningitis-causing bacteria (as well as other infections).

And although the bacteria don’t survive outside the body for very long, it’s still a good idea to wash hands with soap and water throughout the day, especially after being around large numbers of people.

Protection with the MenB vaccine

The MenB vaccine can help protect against the bacteria that cause MenB. The vaccine is typically administered to teens and young adults between the ages of 16 and 23 (and preferably given between the ages of 16 and 18).

This vaccine is different from the MenACWY vaccine, which doesn’t provide protection against serogroup B bacteria. If you’re interested in the MenB vaccine, talk to your family’s healthcare provider to learn more.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningitis."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Bacterial Meningitis."
Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Bacterial Meningitis."
National Meningitis Association. "Disease and Prevention Information."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningococcal B VIS."
Meningitis Now. "Meningococcal disease."
Meningitis Research Foundation. "After effects."
healthychildren.org. "Meningococcal Disease: Information for Teens and College Students."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningococcal Disease."
National Meningitis Association. "Statistics and Disease Facts."

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