The meningococcus is a bacterium (germ) that can cause meningitis and septicaemia (blood infection). These infections are very serious and can be fatal if not treated quickly.
There are different groups (strains or types) of meningococcal bacteria:
Groups B and C are the common strains in the UK. Most cases of bacterial meningitis in the UK are caused by Group B. Most of the rest are caused by Group C (although the number of Group C cases has fallen greatly due to immunisation introduced in 1999).
Group A is rare in the UK, but more common in certain parts of the world. In particular, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Saudi Arabia.
Groups Y, W135, 29E and Z are rare in the UK but group W135 has been the cause of recent outbreaks in certain parts of the world.
There are two types of vaccine against meningococcal infection:
One type of vaccine protects against group C only - the MenC vaccine.
One type of vaccine called the ACWY vax vaccine (or the quadrivalent meningococcal meningitis vaccine) protects against groups A, C, Y and W135.
At present, there is no vaccine that protects against Group B. The vaccines stimulate your body to make antibodies against the meningococcal bacteria. These antibodies protect you from illness should you become infected with the bacteria.
Travellers You should be immunised with the ACWY vax vaccine if you intend to travel to areas where meningococcal infection is a risk. This includes areas of sub-Saharan Africa (particularly in the dry season), and areas of Saudi Arabia. Your doctor or practice nurse can advise if you should have this immunisation for your travel destination.
The ACWY vax vaccine is thought to provide good protection within a week or so of the injection. However, ideally you should be immunised at least two weeks before travel. Protection is thought to last about five years. If needed, a booster is recommended after five years.
Immunity after the ACWY vax vaccine does not last as long in children under five years old. Children between three months and two years of age need to have two vaccines with ACWY vax vaccine three months apart. Children who were under five years when they were first immunised should be given a booster dose after 2–3 years if they still remain at high risk.
Muslims undergoing the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimage Pilgrims to Saudi Arabia are especially at risk of contracting meningococcal infection. There have been outbreaks in recent years. A proof of immunisation is needed to obtain a visa to go to Saudi Arabia for this purpose.
Note: some pilgrims may have been immunised in the past with an older vaccine which only protected against groups A and C. If you travel to Saudi Arabia again you should have an injection of the newer ACWY vax vaccine. Proof of immunisation with ACWY vax vaccine given within the last two years is now needed to get a new visa to visit Saudi Arabia.