CDC Issues Vaccination Warning for Travelers to Saudi Arabia

Officials say the disease can sometimes lead to death in as little as 24 hours.
CDC Issues Vaccination Warning for Travelers to Saudi Arabia
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta on April 23, 2020. (Tami Chappell/AFP via Getty Images)
Jack Phillips
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a health alert and a travel alert about meningococcal disease, an infection that can lead to death in just hours, for people going to Saudi Arabia.
On May 20, the federal health agency issued the alert ostensibly for people heading to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the Hajj or Umrah religious events in June. It said that people going to the country should receive a vaccine for meningococcal disease before going.

The agency said that 10 recent cases of meningococcal disease—a bacterial infection—in the United States and Europe were linked to Saudi Arabia travel and two were close contacts. Two cases were in children under the age of 18, four cases were in adults aged 18 to 44, four were in adults aged 45 to 64, and two were aged 65 years or older, according to the CDC, adding that most of the cases were among those who are unvaccinated for the disease.

Meningococcal vaccines are “recommended for travelers to countries where meningococcal disease is hyperendemic or epidemic, including a booster dose of ... if the last dose was administered” three to five years ago, the CDC added.

Aside from vaccines, U.S. health departments and health care providers are advised to use antibiotics such as rifampin, ceftriaxone, or azithromycin for close contacts of cases of the disease associated with travel to Saudi Arabia, it continued.

As it issued the travel alert around the same time, the CDC advised that “mass gatherings, such as Hajj or Umrah, can increase the risk for infections such as meningococcal disease,” adding, “In 2024, there have been reports of meningococcal disease in travelers who had been in Saudi Arabia for Umrah.”

Travelers are advised to seek urgent medical care if they develop a fever, stiff neck, headache, vomiting, or nausea.

The Saudi government has not issued a public statement on the CDC advisory. The Epoch Times has contacted the Saudi Embassy in Washington for comment.

According to the Saudi government’s website, the country mandates that all travelers aged 1 and older show proof that they have received a meningococcal vaccine in the past three to five years depending on the type of vaccine.

Meningococcal disease is caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis and can lead to severe symptoms. About 10 to 15 percent of people who contract the disease will die even with antibiotics, officials say.

The disease can present as meningitis, or the inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord, including fever, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, and an altered mental state.

It can also infect the bloodstream with symptoms including cold hands and feet, chills, aches and pains, rapid breathing, fatigue, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, and a dark purple rash at later stages of the infection, according to the CDC.

“Even with treatment, around 1 in 6 people with invasive meningococcal disease will die, sometimes in as little as 24 hours,” says the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases on its website. “Of those who survive, 1 in 5 may suffer serious and permanent complications including brain damage, kidney damage, hearing loss, and amputation of arms, legs, fingers, or toes.”

Federal officials say that the disease spreads to other people via “respiratory and throat secretions” such as saliva and often requires close contact or lengthy contact to spread the bacteria.

“Crowding and mass gatherings have been associated with meningococcal disease outbreaks in the past,” the CDC said.

People who are most likely to contract the disease are teenagers and young adults, infants younger than age 1, people living in crowded settings, people with HIV, people with no spleen or a damaged spleen, or people who travel outside the United States, according to health officials in New York state.

Notably, in 2000 and 2001, there was an outbreak of meningococcal disease connected to the Hajj gathering in Saudi Arabia, leading to a global epidemic, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

In March of this year, the CDC issued a health advisory for “invasive serogroup Y” meningococcal disease in the United States, telling health care providers that cases of the bacterial infection appear to be on the rise. In 2023, there were 433 cases reported across the United States, which is the highest annual figure reported in the country in the past decade or so.

Jack Phillips is a breaking news reporter with 15 years experience who started as a local New York City reporter. Having joined The Epoch Times' news team in 2009, Jack was born and raised near Modesto in California's Central Valley. Follow him on X: