By now, you may have read or heard about the young University of Madison senior and the Mt. Horeb High school girl who recently died from bacterial meningitis. It’s pretty scary to hear of such stories in otherwise healthy young people. The good news is, you don’t have to panic. Fortunately bacterial meningitis is very rare. There is also a vaccine available to help prevent the most common type of bacterial meningitis that occurs in teenagers and young adults.
So what is meningitis? It is a disease caused by the swelling or inflammation of the protective covering of the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. This inflammation is most commonly caused by an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord usually by a bacteria or a virus. Symptoms of meningitis are fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, altered mental status, nausea and vomiting.
Meningitis caused by viruses is the most common type of meningitis. It usually tends to be less severe and it clears up on its own without any specific treatment. There are usually no long term consequences. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, can be quite severe and can cause long term damage and even death if not treated immediately with antibiotics. Although it can be serious, routine vaccinations given to all children has reduced the numbers of three of the most common types of bacterial meningitis.
The type of bacterial meningitis most commonly seen in teenagers and young adults is caused by a bacteria called Neisseria meningitis and is what the two young girls mentioned above had. This type of meningitis is not spread by casual contact. It is spread by direct contact with oral secretions. So just being in the same school or just breathing the same air that a person with meningitis had been would not give it to you. On the other hand, kissing; sharing the same utensils or toothbrush; frequently having slept in the same dwelling as the infected person; or sitting very close to a person (such as in airline travel) for more that 8 hours could put you at risk for getting Neisseria meningitis. If you have had this type of close contact within seven days with someone who developed meningitis, you should talk to your health care provider about getting antibiotics to prevent illness.
In order to prevent infection with Neisseria meningitis, it is also recommended that all all pre-teens between the ages of 11 to 12 get the meningococcal vaccine which prevents against most, but not all strains of Neisseria meningitis. It is also recommended for all college freshmen living in a dormitory or if you are a military recruit because this disease is more common in young adults and infectious diseases tend to spread quickly wherever larger groups of people gather together. There are also other high risk groups in which the vaccine is recommended such as in people who have problems which affect their immune system.
So, remember, bacterial meningitis is rare but can be very serious and even life-threatening. It can be treated successfully if dealt with promptly. It is important to get routine vaccinations. Know the signs of meningitis and if you suspect that you or your child has the illness or has been exposed to the illness, seek medical care right away.
Dr. Sumita Ram
2275 Deming Way, Suite 220
Middleton, WI 53562