Meningitis in children – what you need to know

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In a bid to raise awareness about meningitis (a viral or bacterial infection which causes an inflammation of the fluid and membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord), the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations (CoMO) has earmarked 24 April as World Meningitis Day.

Every year, more than a million people worldwide are affected by this potentially fatal disease, but do you know that it mostly affects children under five and adolescents between 15 and 19 years old? Meningitis can have some serious long-term damaging effects, such as seizures, brain damage, deafness and learning difficulties, according to Professor Robert Booy, from the CoMO Scientific Advisory Group. This is because the brain is one of the most important and delicate organs in the human body, so any potential threat – in the form of swelling caused by an injury or infection can result in permanent problems.

Although this information can be frightening and overwhelming for any parent, the good news is, there are sure-fire ways to identify, prevent and treat meningitis. Therefore, if your child contracts the infection, the first step is to stay calm and take action fast.

What is the difference between viral and bacterial meningitis?

Viral meningitis is the more common, less serious form of the infection, and it usually clears up on its own in seven to 10 days, explains paediatrician Dr Amanda Cohn from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. However, bacterial meningitis is much more serious and can be fatal if not treated quickly.

Most cases of bacterial meningitis are caused by bacteria known as meningococcus, pneumococcus, and haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib), says the CoMO.

Other bacteria that can cause meningitis include e.coli, group B strep and tuberculosis. However, research from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, suggests that because more parents are vaccinating their children, Hib meningitis is now rare and there’s been a reduction in the incidence of pneumococcal meningitis, too.

How will I know my child has meningitis?

Although general symptoms can be similar to the flu, it’s important to take your child to the doctor immediately if she presents these signs:

  • A stiff neck
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
  • A high fever
  • Lethargy
  • Headaches
  • Seizures
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sensitivity to light
  • A rash.

How to prevent meningitis

One of the most effective ways to prevent your child from contracting meningitis (especially meningococcus) is to have her vaccinated, says Sister Ann Richardson, a clinic nurse and author of Toddler Sense. “Vaccines prepare the immune system by exposing the body to a germ so that it is better able to fight an infection when it occurs. Vaccines contain either parts of a germ, live but weakened germs, or inactivated (dead) germs,” explains Professor Booy. “Measles mumps and rubella (MMR) and chickenpox vaccines protect children against meningitis and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) caused by these viruses,” he adds.

ALSO SEE: Should I vaccinate my child

When it comes to preventing viral meningitis, there’s no vaccine that’ll protect your little one, so your best bet is to wash her hands regularly and keep surfaces clean at home and at school. Always clean your child’s hands after a trip to the communal park or playground, as germs are rife in public areas.

In addition, children generally contract the infection when the bacteria move from the nose and throat and invade the body, and symptoms will appear within five days, say researchers from the Meningitis Research Foundation. This is why it’s important to teach your child from a young age to hold her hand in front of her mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Treatment options

If you suspect your little one might have meningitis or has presented symptoms mentioned above, particularly headaches and seizures, the first thing the doctor should do is admit your child to hospital for further testing.

Tests might include a range of blood tests as well as a lumbar puncture, where a sample of spinal fluid is taken through a needle to assess whether there’s an infection.

If your child has been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, she’ll need intravenous antibiotics, as well as fluid replacement and will more than likely be monitored in ICU for at least a week. “Although viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis, treatment with injectable antibiotics should be started until a bacterial cause can be excluded,” says Professor Booy. Treatment for viral meningitis is generally rest and pain relievers.

Once your child is successfully treated with antibiotics and discharged from hospital, it’s perfectly safe for her to be around other kids, explains the Meningitis Research Foundation. This is because once the antibiotics have killed the bacteria, she’s not infectious any more.

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