Meningitis kills 170,000 people around the world every year. Most are in developing countries, but young children are especially at risk.

Meningitis kills 170,000 people around the world every year. Most are in developing countries, but young children are especially at risk.

It’s a disease that strikes fear into the heart of most parents, as its symptoms are frustratingly vague and it can become very serious very quickly. On World Meningitis Day we look at the causes, signs and treatments of the potentially fatal illness meningitis.

What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. It occurs when germs infect the fluid that circulates around the brain and spinal cord.

The signs of meningitis are similar to that of the common flu, making it difficult to diagnose 

There are three kinds of meningitis:

  • Viral meningitis is the most common and least severe form of the illness –almost everyone recovers without any lasting damage. Viral meningitis most commonly spreads through faecal contamination, or via secretions from the nose or throat of an infected person.
  • Fungal meningitis is the least common form of the disease, but can be quite severe. It isn’t contagious, and is caught when breathed in via fungal spores. 
  • Bacterial meningitis is the most dangerous form of the illness, leading to 170,000 deaths around the world every year (most of these occur in the developing world). If left untreated, 50% of bacterial meningitis cases lead to death, so prompt treatment is vital. This form is spread from person to person by secretions from the nose or throat of carriers – for example, via sneezing or coughing. It’s thought that 10-20% of people carry the germs at the root of bacterial meningitis, but that it only causes the illness in susceptible people.

Meningitis can affect anyone, but children have a higher risk of being infected with viral meningitis. Infants aged between six and 18 months are most at risk of bacterial meningitis; about 50% of cases occur in kids under the age of five, with another peak in those aged between 15 and 24 years.

Meningitis symptoms
The symptoms of meningitis include fever, vomiting, headache, a stiff neck, sensitivity to light and drowsiness. If the infection was caused by meningococcal meningitis, there might be a rash that doesn’t disappear if you press a glass on it.

The signs of meningitis are similar to that of the common flu, making it difficult to diagnose. It can even more difficult for parents to tell if a young baby has the infection, as they’re unable to explain how they feel.

Meningitis can develop very quickly, over just a few hours. If you suspect that someone has meningitis, see a doctor as soon as possible – visit the closest emergency department if necessary.

Tests and treatment
A lumbar puncture can tell if meningitis is present, and if it’s a viral or bacterial infection. Treatment will depend on what kind of infection it is, but can include antibiotics and steroid medication.

The quicker the infection is treated, the lower the chance of lasting disabilities, such as hearing problems, 

The quicker the sufferer is treated, the better their chances are of avoiding disabling after-effects, which can include hearing loss or deafness, learning difficulties, behaviour problems, epilepsy and developmental delay.

Prevention
Vaccinations are available for several kinds of meningitis.

This video tells the stories of people who have lost loved ones, or had them permanently disabled, after getting meningitis. It gives more detail on the symptoms of the illness.

To learn more about meningitis, visit the Confederation of Meningitis Organisation’s website.

You can also read one mum’s story about her newborn’s experience with meningitis.