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All the facts about meningitis

Meningitis is a multifaceted disease, which occurs when the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord becomes inflamed. There are two types – bacterial and viral.

Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis is almost never life threatening. Most people make a full recovery within a week or two without specific treatment. However, complications can still occur. A common cause is the mumps virus, which can be associated with permanent hearing loss. Having the MMR vaccine will prevent mumps, says Cape Town-based paediatrician, Dr Mark Irvine.

Bacterial meningitis

The bacterial strain is far more dangerous and can lead to death. According to Dr Irvine, common bacterial infections that cause meningitis include meningococcus, haemophilus, and strep pneumoniae (also called pneumococcus). Quick treatment with strong antibiotics is needed.

Vaccines against haemophilus and pneumococcus are available.

Read more about meningitis here

How meningitis spreads

Very close contact, such as coughing, sneezing and kissing, commonly spreads the infection.

“Anyone who has been in contact with an affected person should undergo urgent treatment and vaccination,” advises Professor Denise White, chairman of The South African Medical Association (SAMA).

Of particular concern are the elderly, under-fives and those with a compromised immune system.

If your child has been in the same class with another child with bacterial meningitis, antibiotic prophylaxis is needed. “However, antibiotics are not needed if your child attends the same school, but has no direct contact. Antibiotics are not needed if there is contact with anyone with the viral form,’’ explains Dr Irvine.

Concern, not panic

Although the appearance of meningitis is a source of concern, there is no reason for panic, says Professor White. There has been a steady decline in cases in the past few years.

However, SAMA urges parents to be aware of the symptoms and immediately consult a doctor if anyone displays symptoms.

What to look for

Classic symptoms may include:

  • fever
  • severe headache
  • vomiting
  • muscle/joint pain
  • photophobia
  • petechial (patch-like) rash, that starts as tiny purple pinpricks
  • neck stiffness

Rashes and neck stiffness are not necessarily always present. In babies, other signs might include inactivity, irritability, vomiting and poor feeding.

With thanks to Dr Mark Irvine F.C. Paed (SA) for his contribution.

Donna Cobban