What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the thin membranes covering the brain and the spinal cord. 

Meningitis can be caused by bacteria, viruses and fungal infections (rare). 

Viral meningitis is less serious than bacterial meningitis: it does not require treatment and generally clears up spontaneously. 

Bacterial meningitis can be severe and fatal and therefore requires immediate antibiotic treatment.

Viral meningitis can only be distinguished from a bacterial meningitis using a lumbar puncture.

Bacterial meningitis 

Bacterial meningitis can be caused by different types of bacteria:

  • meningococcal (Neisseria meningitidis)  
  • pneumococcal (Streptococcus pneumoniae)
  • Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b)
  • listeria (Listeria monocytogenes)
  • other bacteria: Escherichia coli, staphylococcus, gram-negative bacilli.

This section focuses on bacterial meningitis caused by meningococcal bacteria (invasive meningococcal disease).

Meningitis, the most common form of invasive meningococcal disease 

Meningitis is the most common form of invasive meningococcal disease, but there are others: 

  • septicaemia (with shock)
  • arthritis 
  • pneumonia (very rare)
  • an infection of the heart (very rare), etc.

Meningitis and septicaemia constitute a medical emergency. 

Invasive meningococcal diseases are notifiable infectious diseases (NOIDs) in the three regions (Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels).

The group of meningococcal bacteria (Neisseria meningitidis) includes 12 serogroups, of which 6 are responsible for meningitis (A, B, C, W135, X and Y) epidemics.  

In Belgium the serogroup B is the most common.

Information for health professionals

The Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Department publishes an annual report on vaccine-preventable infectious diseases including meningococcal disease. For more information, consult the surveillance reports (available in Dutch and French) in the publications section below.


Sciensano hosts the National Reference Centre (NRC) which provides epidemiological monitoring for the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus) and Listeria monocytogenes (listeria). The Belgian Official Medicines Control Laboratory (OMCL) of Sciensano, together with the European OMCL network, is responsible for the quality control of the meningitis vaccine prior to marketing.

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