Demystifying meningitis.

 Meningitis is probably one of the scariest diseases that any parent worries about and carries at the back of their mind. We’ve all heard of it and know something about it, and the key point that we all are very well aware of, it that it can be so serious that certain types of it can be deadly.

Looking back I do find it odd that my midwives and health visitor at the time of first becoming a mum, didn’t even mention it, and yet I have had a couple of scares myself, culminating in an emergency trip to A&E to have Harrison checked over, plus two friends in the last few weeks, that have been through the trauma and nightmare of rushing their little ones into hospital with suspected meningitis, and have had to endure the endless hours of waiting whilst medical staff have rushed around carrying out the various tests in order to reach an accurate diagnosis.

So, given that it’s top of my mind in my world at the moment, I thought I’d relay what I know about it….

The first thing to be aware of, it that there are several types of meningitis but the two most commonly spoken of are: Viral and Bacterial meningitis. Viral is usually a milder disease, but it can make people really quite ill. There are thousands of cases each year and it most commonly affects babies and children, most of whom make a full recovery but for those less able to fight it, the effects can be debilitating.Bacterial meningitis can be fatal and must be treated urgently! Again, currently most people recover but around one in 10 will die! [i] My dad had this when he was younger and described it at having the worst headache possibly imaginable, to the extent where you think it might literally explode with the pressure behind your eyes!

The main bacteria that cause meningitis in the UK are Meningococcal, Pneumococcal, TB and Hib.

It particularly impacts the little people in our lives because their immune system is very immature and not fully developed. Diagnosis can be delayed, and time really matters with this disease, especially if it’s the bacterial kind.  Little ones can’t really tell you how they are feeling, (unless you have a very articulate and super aware toddler) the best you will get is a pointed finger towards the body part that hurts, but its hardly enough for you to really think that its anything more serious than any time before when they’ve declared ‘ouchy ouchy’… as Harrison tends to do when he’s ill. Because of this, it’s so easy to miss all the signs and symptoms, but be vigilant, and aware, every second counts and so I’ve listed them below.

I’ve created my own little acronym to help me remember, I don’t know why I came up with it, it bears no relation to the disease but whatever works, eh? (FYI , it’s the name of my favorite tonic accompaniment, for the best every G&T… ‘Fever Tree’!).

F  Fever, cold hands and feet

E  Energy (none), drowsy and unresponsive (could be floppy)

V  Vomiting and refusing food

E Eversion to bright light plus stiff neck

R Rapid breathing

T Tense, bulging soft spot

R Rash (spots/blotchy skin)

E Extraordinary cry or moaning

E Eek – Convulsions or seizures!

Did you know that:

  • Over 50% of all meningitis cases occurring in babies young children
  • More than three babies, toddlers or young children will be taken ill with meningitis every day.
  • Meningitis kills more children under the age of five than any other infectious disease in the UKi

We are so lucky in the UK to have the health system we have and access to professionals and medicines. Although it seems a little clunky in its running at times, since the introduction of the childhood immunization program in the UK, rates of meningitis have significantly dropped. As part of the program babies under two are given Haemophilus Influenzae (Hib) at 2,3 and 4 months with a booster at 12 months, Menginococcal Group C (Men C) offered at 3, 12 and 13 months (plus since January this year (2014) children aged between 13 and 14 are given a booster which is also available to all under 25’s and 1st year Uni Students (particularly important given the amount of students who now travel from overseas to attend UK uni’s).

There is also the Pneumococcal Meningitis vaccine (PCV) this is one of the most deadly types of the disease (there’s in fact over 90 strains of this bacteria) the PCV vaccine covers 13 strains and is given to under 2’s.  There’s also a PPV vaccine for adults or children with specific medical needs.

There is tonnes of information online with far more detail than I’ve touched on here, and I’d say its worth every parent taking the time to make sure they understand the symptoms enough to recognize them should they present. It’s better to over-react than under react… There’s seriously no cool parent points awareded when it comes to taking the cool relaxed approach to a child feeling poorly…I’ve learned from experience honestly that sometimes you have to over-react, call 999 and get an ambulance, so that you fast track to the right specialist that can actually make a decision, rather than teetering on the edges of standard NHS care protocol!

My recommended websites for further reading are:

Check out the personal stories, they really do put things into perspective and they will remain with you. Its preventable, but awareness and fast action is critical!