Meningitis: Be Aware & Be Prepared!

Glass-Test_Colour.jpgThis year, a new meningitis vaccine is being licensed which will be a major step forward in combatting this devastating disease.  Here's some useful information about the condition that everyone should know…

 



WHAT IS IT?

Meningitis means infection of the meninges - this is a protective membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord.  Between the meninges and the brain/spinal cord is special fluid called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

 

Meningitis can be caused by two types of germs: viruses and bacteria.  If not treated properly it can lead to damage to the brain and nerves.  Bacterial meningitis is serious and if not treated promptly can lead to major complications and even death - this is a medical emergency.  Viral meningitis is more common, but is usually less serious.

 

When people talk about 'meningitis' they are usually talking about bacterial meningitis - the most common cause is something called meningococcus.  There are different types of meningococcus (e.g. group A, B, C etc.).  These bacteria infect the meninges, but can also spread into the bloodstream and cause blood poisoning (septicaemia) - this is what gives you the characteristic purple blotchy rash.  It is possible to have either meningitis or septicaemia alone, or both - but often when people refer to 'meningitis' they are referring to both.

 

WHO IS AT RISK?

Meningitis tends to affect children - 50% of cases are in children under 5 years' old.  Other at-risk groups are teenagers (15-19 years) and the over 55's.

 

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?

This depends the age of the person affected.  Symptoms in small children can be vague and difficult to interpret, including:

 

•  Fever

•  Lethargy

•  Poor feeding/vomiting

•  Irritability/inconsolable crying

•  Pale, cold or mottled skin (particularly hands and feet)

•  Fits

•  Red/purple rash which spreads quickly and does not fade when pressed (called a non-blanching rash)

 

Symptoms in older children and adults include:

 

•  Fever

•  Nausea/vomiting

•  Lethargy

•  Headache

•  Neck stiffness

•  Sensitivity to light

•  Red/purple rash which spreads quickly and does not fade when pressed (called a non-blanching rash)

 

Viral meningitis generally tends to cause milder symptoms - but it is difficult to tell the difference between viral and bacterial without doing special tests in hospital which involve taking a sample of CSF fluid (a procedure called lumbar puncture).

 

If your child is unwell with symptoms suggestive of meningitis or a rash that does not fade on pressure, then they should see a doctor urgently.  It is important to note that it is possible to have meningitis WITHOUT having the characteristic rash - the rash is only present if you have septicaemia.

 

WHAT IS THE TREATMENT?

Anyone with meningitis or septicaemia needs urgent medical assessment and treatment - they need urgent antibiotics.  They can become very sick very quickly and may need to go to Intensive Care to be treated properly.  If you or your child is unwell with non-blanching rash then seek help immediately.

 

WHAT ARE THE LONG TERM PROBLEMS?

Meningitis can damage the body, brain and nerves if not treated properly.  Complications are more likely with bacterial meningitis and include:

 

•  Hearing, speech and vision problems

•  Seizures

•  Cerebral palsy

•  Movement and co-ordination

•  Gangrene requiring amputation (hands, feet etc.)

 

CAN IT BE PREVENTED?

YES.  Currently, one of the MOST EFFECTIVE ways of reducing your chances of getting meningitis is vaccination.  The following vaccines all help prevent different types of meningitis:

 

•  Meningococcal vaccine (which currently cover groups A, C, W, Y)

•  HiB vaccine

•  Pneumococcal vaccine

•  MMR vaccine

 

The new meningitis vaccine licensed this year is against group B meningococcus (which is currently the most common type in the UK).  It's a major positive step in helping to prevent this serious condition, but licensing only means that it is OK to use.  It needs to be introduced as routine and that's a different story.  Other things that keep your immune system in good shape (good nutrition, exercise, sleep etc.) also help.  Smoking, including passive smoking, is known to be a risk factor for developing the disease so make sure that you DO NOT smoke - yourself or around children.

 

Also, if you have been in contact with someone with suspected meningitis, then you may be advised to take antibiotics for a short time to reduce your chances of developing the disease.

 

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

There are lots of good, reliable sources of information about meningitis on the Internet.  These include:

 

NHS Choices

Meningitis Now (previously Meningitis Trust & Meningitis UK)

Meningitis Research Foundation

 

Also here's a video I did talking about meningitits signs and symptoms: Videojug