“Meningitis peaks in the monsoon and winter months. It can develop rapidly, and in its most serious form the results can be devastating – sometimes fatal. Children under the age of one are most at risk, followed by children aged one to five”.
The term doesn’t really describe the true extent of the disease. ’Meningitis’ basically means inflammation of the meninges, which are the linings around the brain. Viral meningitis is almost always a fairly mild condition and lasts from four to ten days. Most children make a complete recovery although they may suffer from headaches and tiredness for up to a year afterwards. Although less common, the disease caused by bacteria is a very different story. A bacterium known as meningococcus lives in the nasopharynx (the back of the throat) of healthy people. At any one time, about ten per cent of the population could be carrying it. Smokers and people living in overcrowded households have increased rates of carriage of the bacterium. It is spread by sneezing, coughing, and intimate kissing. Fortunately most people naturally develop protection against these bacteria. Meningococcal bacteria can cause both meningitis and septicaemia (blood poisoning). Once in the bloodstream, the bacteria multiply rapidly and stimulate the immune system into overdrive at a frightening speed. Meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia together are known as meningococcal disease.
How can you recognise the signs?
The first signs are often cold hands and feet, leg pain and abnormal skin colour. Other symptoms in children can include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, dislike of bright lights and drowsiness or confusion.
“The first signs are often cold hands and feet, leg pain and abnormal skin colour. Other symptoms in children can include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck, dislike of bright lights and drowsiness or confusion”.
When should I seek medical help?
Meningitis can develop quickly – within the space of a few hours. If your child is ill and you suspect meningitis, don’t wait for a rash to appear before you get help. Trust your instincts and get medical help immediately. The speed at which the condition is recognised and treatment given is critical – even a delay of a few hours in getting treatment could be potentially fatal.
What does treatment involve?
Bacterial meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia are medical emergencies. Immediate treatment with antibiotics and hospital admission are needed. Some children can be cared for on a general ward with close observation, others may need to be closely monitored in an intensive care unit. How long your child is likely to be in hospital depends on the severity of the disease. Viral meningitis is rarely life threatening. Most children recover without needing hospital treatment. Pain management and rest are part of the recovery process. A child with viral meningitis won’t need antibiotics.
What’s the outlook?
Most children make a good recovery, even when they’ve been very ill. Sadly not all do. Meningitis still claims lives. Those who recover can be left with after effects. Some are relatively minor – such as experiencing mood swings, and difficulties with memory, learning and behaviour.
Around 15 per cent of people will suffer from serious after effects. The most common of these is hearing loss. This can range from mild hearing loss to profound deafness. It’s important for anyone who’s had meningitis to have a hearing test soon after their illness.
More rarely, a child can be left with other major problems. Meningitis can damage the nerve responsible for sight (optic nerve), resulting in partial loss of vision or blindness in one or both eyes. This often improves in time. Other serious problems can include brain damage, epilepsy and, due to septicaemia, scarring and limb loss. Even if your child hasn’t been left with any ongoing medical problems, you can expect them to feel tired and not quite up to full strength for some weeks or even months