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The Meningitis Scare

Meningitis is one of the most feared illnesses throughout the world, particularly for parents or those who are involved with young children. This disease can strike without any warning and cause a perfectly healthy child to die within hours. Find out more about deadly disease. Unknown to many, meningitis can strike anyone although it is most common among infants less than one year of age and people with certain medical conditions, such as lack of a spleen. Once it strikes, it can kill in a matter of hours.

What Is Meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. There are many different types of meningitis, and their severity and treatment can vary. According to Dr Adrian, a consultant neurologist and physician, "Most cases of meningitis are caused by viruses (viral meningitis) or bacteria (bacterial meningitis). Fungi and other organisms can also cause infectious meningitis:'

The infection can start anywhere, including the skin, gastrointestinal tract, or urinary system, but the most common source is the respiratory tract. From there the micro-organisms can enter the bloodstream, travel through the body, and enter the central nervous system.

Viral Meningitis 

Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis. It often remains undiagnosed because its symptoms are similar to those of the common flu. Most cases of viral meningitis are associated with enteroviruses - viruses that typically cause stomach "flu:'

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is a more severe form of meningitis caused by bacteria that normally lives in the mouth and throat. When the immune system is unable to suppress these bacteria, it travels to the cerebrospinal spinal fluid in the brain. From there it affects the membranes surrounding the brain. Unlike viral meningitis, bacterial meningitis can be life-threatening or can leave very scarring aftereffects such as hearing loss.

What Are The Symptoms?

The symptoms of meningitis may sometimes resemble other common medical conditions. Symptoms of viral and bacterial meningitis are almost similar, particularly in the early stages of the disease. However, viral meningitis usually shows milder symptoms compared to bacterial meningitis.

"Some of the more common symptoms of the disease include fever, lethargy or irritability," Dr Adrian explains. Older children may complain of a headache, photophobia (eye sensitivity to light), and a stiff neck, which is often noted by the doctor during a physical exam. Meningitis also can lead to skin rashes, although rashes caused by bacterial meningitis look different from those caused by viral meningitis.

Seizures occasionally accompany meningitis as well. In newborns and infants, these symptoms may not be present or may be difficult to determine. Instead, the child might be inactive or irritable, start vomiting and refuse any food intake. Other symptoms of meningitis in infants can include jaundice, a stiffness of the body and neck, a mild fever and a lower-than-normal temperature.

Is Meningitis Infectious?

Meningitis is contagious. It can spread via contact with an infected person's respiratory secretions. Sharing food, drinking glasses, eating utensils, tissues or towels may all transmit the infections as well. Some infectious organisms can spread through a person's stool and someone who comes in contact with the stool - such as a child in day care - may contract the infection.

Patients with meningitis typically remain contagious while they still have symptoms. However, casual contact at school or work with someone who has one of these infections usually will not transmit the infectious agent.

How Is Meningitis Treated?

"If you suspect your child has meningitis or exhibits symptoms such as vomiting, headache, lethargy, neck stiffness, rash and fever, please, see a doctor immediately," Dr Adrian advises. Infants showing similar symptoms should also be assessed by a doctor right away. The doctor will perform a physical examination and if meningitis is suspected, he will order laboratory tests to help make the diagnosis. The tests will likely include a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to collect a sample of spinal fluid. This sample will be examined for signs of inflammation and cultured for the organism that may be causing the infection.

If the child is suspected to have bacterial meningitis, he or she will be hospitalised and closely monitored. Doctors will start intravenous antibiotics as soon as possible, often before the exact micro-organism causing the infection has been pinpointed. Once the infectious agent is identified through laboratory tests, the antibiotics can be changed, if necessary, or discontinued if the patient turns out to have viral meningitis.

The child will also be given fluids to replace those lost due to fever, swearing, vomiting and poor appetite, and may be given corticosteroids to help reduce the inflammation, depending on the cause of the disease. Bacterial meningitis can sometimes cause complications and this may require specific treatment. For example, anticonvulsant can be given for seizures. If the child develops shock or low blood pressure, additional intravenous fluids and certain medications may be given to increase blood pressure.

Some children may need supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation if they have difficulty breathing. A child who has viral meningitis may also be hospitalised, although some children are allowed to recover at home if they do not seem to be too ill. Children who recover at home need to be' closely monitored by their parents. If the condition of a child recuperating at home worsens, the child should go to the emergency department right away.

Rest, fluids and good nutrition, as well as measures to control fever and relieve pain, will ease discomfort and aid in recovery from viral meningitis. Some patients who have had meningitis may require longer term follow-up. One of the most common problems resulting from bacterial meningitis is impaired hearing, and children who have had bacterial meningitis should have a hearing test following their recovery,

Can Meningitis Be Prevented?

Apart from vaccination, there is no known way to protect against meningitis. There is no vaccine yet against meningococcus group B, the most common group causing meningococcal meningitis. Some forms of bacterial meningitis can be prevented through immunisation such as Hib (Haemophilus influenza type B), measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), polio, and pneumococcus.

Most babies now receive meningitis C and Hib vaccines at two, three and four months. The Hib vaccination also offers protection against bacterial infections such as septic arthritis and cellulitis. Some high-risk children should also be immunised against certain types of meningococcus.

Many of the bacteria and viruses that are responsible for meningitis are fairly common. Good hygiene is another important means of preventing any infection. Encourage your family members to wash their hands thoroughly and often, particularly before eating and after using the bathroom. "Avoiding close contact with someone who is obviously ill and not sharing food, drinks, or eating utensils can help halt the spread of germs as well;" Dr Adrian says.

In certain cases of meningitis, doctors may decide to give antibiotics to anyone who has been in close contact with the person who is ill to help prevent additional cases of illness. Although there is little we can do to prevent meningitis, we can limit its devastating health effects by recognising the symptoms of the disease and seeking immediate medical treatment.


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