Meningitis refers to inflammation in the layers of tissue surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. There are many causes, but most cases are from a bacterial or viral infection.

Meningitis continues to be a serious global health threat with a high death rate. There is a difference in severity between the two main types.

Viral meningitis is usually milder and can resolve on its own. Bacterial meningitis can cause long-term complications or death, especially if not treated right away.

Vaccines are available to prevent infection with some of the bacterial and viral organisms that can cause meningitis. Vaccinations have greatly reduced the death rate from bacterial meningitis.

Read on to learn more about the fatality rate of meningitis and steps to take to protect yourself and loved ones from getting sick.

Meningitis epidemics continue to happen around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Vaccines for bacterial meningitis A and B have been around for decades, but not everyone has easy access to them.

While the United States has lower rates of meningitis than many other countries, infections do still occur.

Bacterial meningitis statistics

At least 1.2 million cases of bacterial meningitis are estimated to occur every year around the world, estimates 2021 research.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 1 in 10 people who get bacterial meningitis die from the infection, even with treatment.

Without treatment, the death rate can be as high as 70 percent, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Several types of bacteria can cause meningitis, but the most common are:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
  • Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus)
  • Streptococcus agalactiae (group B streptococcus)
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus)

Hib used to be the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children under 5 years old. According to the CDC, roughly 4 percent of cases were fatal. But once the Hib vaccine was introduced in 1989, the rate of invasive Hib disease in young children decreased dramatically, to fewer than 1 case per 100,000 children.

Globally, deaths from meningitis have been decreasing over the last 2 decades, according to 2018 research. The highest death rates and likelihood rates of contracting meningitis remain in certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Viral meningitis statistics

Viral meningitis is usually much less severe than bacterial meningitis. People with average immune systems will likely get better on their own from viral meningitis without treatment.

The fatality rate from viral meningitis depends on the type of virus causing the infection.

Most cases of viral meningitis are caused by non-polio enteroviruses. The death rate from these types of infections is very low. One study estimated the fatality rate from viral meningitis caused by enteroviruses at less than 1 percent.

Meningitis caused by West Nile virus, which is spread by mosquitoes, has an estimated 4 to 13 percent death rate. Likelihood of death is higher in people who are older, are immunocompromised, or have diabetes.

The bacteria and viruses that bring about meningitis can be transmitted through respiratory droplets or throat secretions when you cough, sneeze, kiss, or share utensils.

It’s also possible to contract certain kinds of bacteria that can cause meningitis if you eat contaminated food. Group B streptococcus can also be transmitted from birthing parent to child around the time of birth.

Meningitis can occur in people of all ages, but babies, children, and those with a weakened immune system are at the highest risk. Babies between birth and 1 month of age are more likely to develop a severe viral infection.

Higher risk also occurs when people live closely together, like in overcrowded households, student or military housing, or refugee camps. Smoking can also raise the risk of certain types of meningitis.

Travel to sub-Saharan Africa can also raise the risk of meningitis.

Early symptoms of meningitis are usually fever, vomiting, and headache. These symptoms often start a few days after a cold, diarrhea, or vomiting.

Other symptoms of meningitis include:

  • cold hands and feet
  • rash
  • neck stiffness
  • confusion
  • sensitivity to bright lights
  • severe headache
  • irritability
  • inconsolable crying (in babies)
  • high fever

Research has found that 85 percent of children and teens who died from meningitis caused by N. meningitidis did so within 24 hours of diagnosis. If you or your child experiences the above symptoms, visit a doctor right away.

Bacterial meningitis is always a medical emergency. It must be treated at a hospital with intravenous antibiotics and steroids.

According to the WHO, vaccination to prevent meningitis is the best way to lessen the disease burden.

There are currently three types of vaccines for meningitis. These include vaccines against:

  • Hib
  • pneumococcus (PCV20, PCV13, and PPSV23)
  • meningococcus (MenB and MenACWY)

Some of these vaccines are considered standard vaccinations and are recommended for all children or adolescents. Others are only recommended for people considered high risk. All these vaccines are available in the United States.

It’s best to stay current on other vaccines as well. Vaccines for viruses such as chickenpox, measles, and influenza can also help prevent meningitis.

Vaccination isn’t 100 percent effective, but it is a substantial protective measure. Vaccines train your immune system to respond to an infection it hasn’t met yet.

Meningitis rates have declined drastically since vaccination started in the 1990s. In 2005, the CDC recommended vaccination with the MenACWY vaccine for all pre-teens and teens. Since then, meningococcal disease in adolescents decreased by over 90 percent.

Other ways to prevent infections with viruses and bacteria that may result in meningitis are to:

  • wash your hands often with soap and water
  • clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as counters and door knobs
  • avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • stay home when you’re sick
  • keep sick children home from school
  • avoid bites from mosquitoes and other insects that carry diseases

Meningitis deaths have declined drastically since the introduction of meningitis vaccines in the 1990s, but the disease is still considered a serious public health concern.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is leading an effort to defeat meningitis by 2030. One of its aims is to reduce cases of vaccine-preventable bacterial meningitis by 50 percent and deaths by 70 percent.

Currently, the best way to prevent meningitis and severe disease is to get vaccinated. If you’re vaccinated, you’re likely to have a milder disease if you do contract meningitis and a lower risk of dying from the infection.