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  • Michelle Bresnahan

What you need to know about meningitis

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. These layers are called the meninges. Some bacteria that cause meningitis can also cause septicaemia (blood poisoning). There are many different causes of meningitis, but the two most common organisms are viruses and bacteria.

  • Meningitis can affect anyone of any age

  • Meningitis can kill

  • Meningitis can cause long-term after-effects

  • Viral and bacterial are the most common causes of meningitis

  • No vaccine provides 100% protection against meningitis

  • Early signs and symptoms can appear similar to 'flu' or a stomach bug

  • Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial meningitis but rarely fatal

  • Bacterial types are comparatively rare, but extremely dangerous and can be fatal

  • The most common bacterial cause in the UK is the meningococcus. This can cause both meningitis and septicaemia (meningococcal disease)

  • Other types of bacterial meningitis include pneumococcal, Hib, neonatal (usually caused by group B streptococcus and E. coli) and TB

UK charity Meningitis Now estimates that there are currently around 2,000 cases of bacterial meningitis in the UK and 6,000 cases of viral meningitis each year – equivalent to 22 a day.

How do I know if my child has meningitis?

What are the main signs and symptoms?

The common signs and symptoms associated with meningitis and septicaemia can appear in any order, and some may not appear at all.

In adults and children: Fever with cold hands and feet - Vomiting - Drowsy, difficult to wake - Confusion and irritability - Severe muscle pain - Pale blotchy skin, spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure - Severe headache - Stiff neck - Dislike of bright lights - Convulsions/seizures

In babies and toddlers: - Fever with cold hands and feet - Refusing food or vomiting - Fretful, dislike of being handled - Drowsy, floppy, unresponsive - Rapid breathing or grunting - Pale blotchy skin, spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure - Unusual cry, moaning - Tense, bulging fontanelle - Neck stiffness - Dislike of bright lights - Convulsions/seizures

What is the rash?

When meningococcal bacteria multiply in the blood stream, they release toxins (poisons) that damage the blood vessels. The rash is caused by blood leaking from the damaged blood vessels into the tissues underneath the skin.

The rash can start anywhere on the body. It begins as tiny red pin pricks, but may quickly develop to look like fresh bruising. The Glass Test can be used to see if the rash might be septicaemia. If you press the side of a clear drinking glass firmly onto the spots or bruises, they will not fade.

A rash will not always appear with meningitis and can be one of the last symptoms to be displayed. Never wait for a rash if you suspect meningitis.

Who’s at risk?

Anyone can be affected by meningitis and septicaemia, but there are certain factors which may put you at greater risk. These include being a certain age – the under-fives are most at risk, particularly the under-ones; teenagers and young adults are the second most at-risk group; and those over 65 are also at increased risk.

Living environment, exposure to passive smoking, mass gatherings and immune system problems are also factors.

What vaccines are available?

Vaccines are the only way to protect yourself against meningitis. Effective vaccines are available to prevent some types of meningitis and septicaemia, but not all. It is important to know the signs and symptoms and seek urgent medical help if you are concerned.

Most vaccines are available as part of the UK routine immunisation schedule.

  • A combined vaccine that protects against Hib, diptheria, tetanus, polio, pertussis and hepatitis B is offered to babies at 2, 3 and 4 months

  • A Men B vaccine is offered to babies at 2, 4 and 12 months

  • A pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) protects against 13 strains that commonly cause disease. Babies born on or after 1 January 2020 are offered the vaccine at 12 weeks and 12-13 months.

  • A different combined vaccine (Hib and MenC) is offered at 12-13 months

  • A Men C vaccine – combined with Hib – is offered to infants at 12-13 months

  • The MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella and is offered at 12-13 months and again at around 4 years

  • The MenACWY vaccine is offered around 14 years of age. It is also offered to new university entrants up to the age of 25 years, who have not previously been vaccinated

  • A pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV) is offered to anyone aged 65 years and over

  • The MenACWY vaccine is available to people travelling to areas of the world with a high incidence of Men A, C, W or Y disease such as sub-Saharan Africa or Saudi Arabia during Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages

After meningitis

Meningitis can strike quickly, but its impact can last a lifetime. Meningitis and septicaemia can turn your world upside down, leaving many affected with after-effects.

  • One in ten of those who contract bacterial meningitis will die.

  • Up to 30-50% of those who survive bacterial meningitis are left with one of more permanent problems and suffer physical, neurological and physiological after-effects. After-effects can include brain injury, deafness, learning difficulties, epilepsy, mood swings, disruptive behaviour, sight problems, headaches, tiredness, memory loss or concentration problems.

  • The toxins that are released during septicaemia cause damage to blood vessels. This can prevent the vital flow of blood and oxygen to major organs and can result in after-effects such as skin and tissue damage, amputations or organ failure.

Where to get help and find out more

Michelle Bresnahan, who set up the Bristol-based charity, a Life for a Cure, following her 16-year-old son Ryan’s death from meningitis in 2010, has been campaigning tirelessly to raise awareness of the symptoms of the disease and funds for research. She works closely with national charity Meningitis Now.

Meningitis Now is the founder of the meningitis movement and the only charity dedicated to fighting meningitis in the UK.

With nearly 35 years’ experience it is working towards a future where no one in the UK loses their life to meningitis and everyone affected gets the support they need to rebuild their lives.

Meningitis Now fights the disease on all fronts:

· Providing a powerful, united voice for people fighting meningitis.

· Saving lives by funding vaccine and preventative research.

· Reducing the disease’s impact through awareness.

· Rebuilding futures with dedicated support

· Fundraising to deliver its plans.

Find out more on the website Meningitis and listen to our podcast with Michelle Bresnahan, founder of Life for a Cure

Call the free Nurse-led Helpline on 0808 80 10 388

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