What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord and it comes in two forms: bacterial and viral. The viral form is rarely fatal, and most children soon recover. Bacterial meningitis is more serious and is often accompanied by septicaemia, an infection of the blood stream. Left untreated, babies and young children can die within hours or end up with brain damage and permanent physical side effects. But even though it’s a very serious condition, if caught, bacterial meningitis is treatable.
What causes it?
Viral meningitis usually causes a less serious infection, but it’s still a nasty illness with potentially long-term complications.
The most common bacterial meningitis in the UK is causes by meningococcal bacteria, which lives in the throat and nose of some healthy people. If these bacteria spread to people who don’t carry them, they can overwhelm the immune system causing infection. Meningococcal bacteria fall into several groups, but most cases in the UK are caused by groups B and C.
The second most common form of bacterial meningitis is pneumococcal meningitis, which generally affects babies under two. Pneumococcal meningitis may be more likely to affect babies who are immuno-compromised or who have pneumonia, sickle-cell, or chronic heart and lunch disease. Generally though, there is no way of predicting which babies are at risk.
Meningitis in newborn babies is caused by a different bacteria – mostly Group B streptococcal bacteria – and 90% of them survive.
How to protect your child
The best advice, says Julia Warren of the Meningitis Research Foundation, is to keep vaccinations up to date. Vaccinations are offered as part of the Childhood Immunisation Programme in the UK and babies are routinely vaccinated against Group C meningococcal meningitis at 3 and 4 months: this has cut cases by more than 90%. Babies are also vaccinated against pneumococcal meningitis at 2, 4 and 13 months and against Hib (Haemophilus influenza type b) bacterial meningitis, once the main form in young children in the UK, but now rare.
However, there is still no vaccine to protect against all strains of the disease, including the most common – Meningitis B, so it is vital to stay vigilant and be aware of the symptoms.
You can also help by teaching and routinely using good hygiene, such as washing your hands after using the toilet and before eating, as this can dramatically reduce the spread of viruses and bacteria.