Health

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Dangerous Form of Meningitis Thrives in Winter, Experts Say

January 15, 2009 01:58 PM
by Emily Coakley
Bacterial meningitis has killed one New York City teenager and put another in the hospital, as health experts warn people everywhere about the disease.

Fear in New York After Meningitis Death

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Ava Hecht, 17, died last week after contracting bacterial meningitis, and another student at her New York City high school is in the hospital, possibly with the same infection. The school has used e-mail and announcements to tell students how to protect themselves, WCBS TV reported Thursday.

Meningitis is an infection that inflames the lining around the brain, and when certain bacteria cause the disease, it can be deadly. The symptoms, which can include a stiff neck, headache and fever, can appear suddenly.

Health Protection Agency officials in Suffolk, England, are warning people that this is the time of year meningitis seems to strike. Children under the age of two are particularly at risk.

“We tend to see an increase in meningitis infections at this time of year. People everywhere, especially parents of young children, should be aware of the signs and symptoms,” said Joe Kearney, HPA East of England’s regional director, told Evening Star 24 newspaper.

Having the flu may make a person more likely to get meningitis or septicemia, which is a blood infection, the Irish Times reported earlier this week.

“Battling the flu can affect someone’s natural immunity and may make them more vulnerable to infection with these bugs. The very young, the over-65 or those with chronic illness may be particularly at risk,” said Suzanne Cotter, a public health and medicine specialist at Ireland’s national Health Protection Surveillance Centre, in an interview with the Irish Times.

According to the paper, “She urged people who have recently recovered from flu and who have become very unwell again with high fever shortly after, to seek medical attention as they may be at slight risk from meningococcal and pneumococcal disease.”

While public health experts are worried about people getting bacterial meningitis, there are signs that the disease might be becoming rarer. A study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that Prevnar, a vaccine that guards against seven strains of bacterial meningitis, is working well.

Prevnar has helped reduced the incidence of meningitis in small children.  According to the study, described in USA Today, the number of cases dropped by 64 percent between 1998–1999 and 2004–2005. For people over the age of 65, the number of cases dropped 54 percent in the same period, the newspaper reported. And as fewer people in the high-risk group contract the disease, it seems that fewer people overall have gotten it; “episodes of pneumococcal meningitis dropped 30% in the overall population,” USA Today said.

Background: Meningitis explained

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is potentially fatal
, or could cause hearing loss or brain damage in the worst cases. Some groups, such as infants, older people, those with weakened immune systems and college students living in dormitories are at high risk for the disease, which is fatal in up to 15 percent of cases, according to the National Institute Neurological Disease and Stroke.

It can be spread through fluids, such as saliva, or droplets after a sneeze or cough. Sharing a drink or other personal items can spread the disease, too. NINDS says, “College students living in dormitories—in particular, college freshmen—have a higher risk of contracting meningococcal meningitis than college students overall.”    

Meningitis symptoms include a stiff neck, severe headache, and a sudden fever. NINDS says the symptoms can come on suddenly. In babies, symptoms include body stiffness, a bulging fontanel, constant crying that gets worse when the child is picked up and vomiting. It’s treated with strong antibiotics, and it’s imperative that a person get medical attention as soon as possible. Anyone who has the symptoms should be taken to a hospital immediately.

Viral Meningitis

The other type of meningitis, viral, is more common and usually not fatal, NINDS says. It can also be transmitted through saliva or other secretions, or by touching an infected surface. Besides the fever, headache and stiff neck, a person with meningitis could also have flu-like symptoms “that develop over 1-2 days,” according to NINDS.

Antibiotics won’t work on viral meningitis, which is why it’s important to get the disease diagnosed. NINDS says that people with a mild case of viral meningitis might be put on bed rest at home with pain medication and fluids. A mild case of viral meningitis would produce flu-like symptoms. For a severe case, hospitalization, along with different medications to control the swelling around the brain and prevent convulsions, may be required.
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