Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, which are the membranes that enclose the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by either a bacterium or a virus. The seriousness and treatment of the disease is considerably different for the viral and for the bacterial form. Viral (or aseptic) meningitis is typically less severe and usually heals spontaneously within one-two weeks. The bacterial (septic) form, however, is much more serious and can lead to brain damage or death.
Which bacteria can cause meningitis?
The three most common bacteria are Haemophilus influensae, Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus) and Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus). The leading cause of the disease used to be Haemophilus, but as a result of childhood vaccination, it was replaced by Neisseira as the most common bacterium. Originating from the name of the bacterium, the disease is sometimes called meningococcal meningitis. Diagnosis in the early stage of infection is extremely important, as that will determine the proper antibiotic treatment for both the patient and their environment.
How does the disease spread?
The bacterium is spread through droplets of respiratory secretions during close contact. Fortunately the permeation capability of the pathogen is limited, thus it cannot be spread by being in the same room or getting in skin contact with the infected person.
What are the symptoms and effects of the disease?
Symptoms can present within hours of infection, but it usually takes one-two days for all of them to develop. Those are high fever, chills, vomiting, sleepiness, headache, neck stiffness and even seizures. In advanced cases quickly spreading rashes of the skin is also visible. Advanced cases can lead to brain damage, coma or sometimes death with survivors often suffering long-term consequences such as loss of hearing, mental disability or paralysis.
How is the disease diagnosed and treated?
The exact diagnosis is made through the analysis of bacterial cultures of the cerebrospinal fluid, which also provides help to selecting the proper antibiotic. Doctors will perform a spinal tap-withdrawing fluid from the spinal canal for analysis-in order to confirm the diagnosis.If diagnosed in the early stage, meningitis can usually be treated without long-term effects.
How widespread is the disease?
Sporadic in Europe and the United States, but east from Hungary (in Romania for example) there have been significant epidemics with a number of deaths in the past years. Hungary has about 10-30 cases a year. The biggest meningitis epidemics happen in Africa. Annually there are about a million cases diagnosed throughout the world with a 10% mortality rate.
How can the spreading of the disease be prevented?
Meningitis is contagious, so if you know that your child has been exposed to it, keep a careful eye on him. Speed is of the essence, so call you doctor immediately if any of the symptoms listed above occur. Full recovery depends on early diagnosis and hospitalization. Children who have been exposed to meningitis caused by bacteria may need to receive antibiotics to prevent them from becoming ill.
In Hungary, similarly to the United States, childhood vaccinations include the shot against pneumocosccus and Haemophilus, however, meningococcal vaccination is not mandatory.We, therefore, highly recommend immunization against meningococcal bacteria to everyone, above all children younger than 2 years of age and people who live in crowded places like dormitories.
Ask your physician about recommended further immunization.