Most common in babies and young children, meningitis can be alarmingly serious if not treated quickly.
Children under three years old are 70 times more likely to contract bacterial meningitis—an infection of the protective membranes that surround the spinal cord—than adults. If not treated quickly, meningitis can have devastating complications and can lead to life-threatening blood poisoning, known as sepsis. Being aware of meningitis and making sure your little one’s vaccinations are up to date can help protect against this dangerous infection.
Not all causes of meningitis and sepsis are preventable through vaccination and symptoms can develop suddenly, so being able to recognise the signs is vital. The following can arrive in any order and some may not appear at all:
- A high temperature of 38C or above.
- A headache.
- A blotchy rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it.
- A stiff neck.
- An aversion to bright lights.
- Drowsiness or unresponsiveness.
How Is It Spread?
Meningitis is caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Bacterial meningitis is rarer but more serious than viral meningitis and is the leading infectious cause of death in early childhood every year in the UK. Infections can be spread through sneezing, coughing, kissing and sharing utensils, cutlery and toothbrushes. Usually, meningitis is caught from people who carry these viruses or bacteria in their nose or throat but who aren't ill themselves. It can also be spread from someone with meningitis, but this is less common.
Viral meningitis will usually get better without intervention and rarely causes any long-term problems. Most people with bacterial meningitis who are treated quickly will also make a full recovery, although some are left with serious, long-term problems. It's estimated that one person in every two or three who survives bacterial meningitis is left with one or more permanent conditions. These include:
- Hearing loss or vision loss (partial or total).
- Problems with memory and concentration.
- Recurrent seizures (epilepsy).
- Coordination, movement and balance problems.
- Amputation of affected limbs.
- Learning difficulties and behavioural problems.
Immunisation is the most effective prevention method. As meningitis and sepsis can be caused by a number of different infections, several vaccinations are available to offer some levels of protection. These vaccinations have successfully reduced the number of meningitis cases throughout the world and are routinely administered to babies from the age of eight weeks as part of the NHS vaccination schedule.
This feature was originally published in the summer edition of Healthy Child with Dr Ranj Singh, which you can also read here!