What you need to know about Meningitis: Signs symptoms and the Meningitis B vaccine
The thought of meningitis strikes fear in any parent’s heart. World Meningitis Day on 24th April highlights how this disease can appear out of nowhere and even kill within 24 hours.
As parents, there are three important things you need to know about meningitis:
- Can it be prevented? Vaccination can protect your child against the most common causes of bacterial meningitis
- What does it look like? Not all cases of bacterial meningitis are preventable, so it’s crucial to know the symptoms to look for
- What to do if you think your child could have meningitis.
What is meningitis?
Meningitis is an infection of the membranes that protect the brain and spinal cord. While some forms of meningitis are due to viruses, the most serious cases are caused by several different types of bacteria.
It’s a scary fact that as many as one in four teens and one in ten adults carry the bacteria that cause meningitis in their nose and throat without developing symptoms themselves. These bacteria are easily spread through close contact, kissing, coughing and sneezing - even sharing cutlery - to cause sudden infection in people who are not immune.
Those who are most at risk of catching bacterial meningitis are babies, infants, teenagers and young adults. Vaccination is designed to provide much-needed immune protection for those who are most at risk.
What are the symptoms of meningitis?
While vaccination protects against many types of meningitis, it can’t protect against all cases. The main symptoms of meningitis to watch for in anyone, of any age, include:
- high temperature (38o C (100.4oF) or above
- pale or blotchy skin
- rapid breathing
- irritability, drowsiness or difficulty waking
- seizures (fits)
- blank, staring expression
Older children and adults may also complain of:
- severe headache
- dislike of bright lights
- stiff, painful neck movements.
Symptoms of meningitis can come on quickly, so if someone has a ‘flu-like illness, keep a close eye on them in case they take a turn for the worse.
The bacteria that cause meningitis can spread into the circulation to cause sepsis (blood poisoning) and a rash that doesn’t fade with pressure (eg by rolling a glass over it). Not everyone develops a rash, however, so don’t wait for one to appear before seeking help.
What to do if you suspect meningitis
Someone with meningitis is obviously very ill. Try not to worry unduly about a headache in someone who is otherwise quite well, but trust your instincts.
If you think that you or a loved one could have meningitis, call a doctor without delay. Don't worry about being alarmist. Remember, meningitis can kill in 24 hours so seek immediate help.
The disease can be difficult to diagnose in the early stages as it resembles other ‘flu-like illnesses, so even if someone has already been checked by a doctor, don't be afraid to call for help again if they are getting worse. Up to 20% of people with bacterial meningitis die.
If someone is seriously ill, call 999 for an ambulance or go straight to your nearest hospital emergency department.
People who receive prompt treatment for meningitis can make a full recovery but there is a risk of complications and life-changing disabilities such as brain damage, deafness, visual problems or poor co-ordination after recovery.
Vaccinations offer protection against the most common forms of bacterial meningitis. There is no single ‘meningitis vaccine’ and it’s important for your child to receive all the recommended meningitis vaccinations at the recommended times.
In the UK, the vaccinations that protect against bacterial meningitis are scheduled as follows:
The meningitis B vaccine
Protects against bacteria that cause more than 90% of bacterial meningitis infections in young children. The MenB vaccine is offered to babies aged 8 weeks, with a second dose at 16 weeks, and a booster at 1 year. As this has only been available recently there must be groups of older children/teenagers at risk as they have not been vaccinated?
The 6-in-1 vaccine
Includes protection against Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b) and is offered to babies at the ages of 8 weeks, 12 weeks and 16 weeks.
The pneumococcal vaccine
Protects against Streptococcus pneumoniae and is offered to babies at 8 weeks, 16 weeks and 1 year old.
The Hib/MenC vaccine
Protects against Hib and the bacteria that cause meningitis C, and is offered to babies at 1 year of age.
The meningitis ACWY vaccine
Protects against four different strains of bacteria that cause meningitis, and is offered to teenagers, sixth formers and students going to university for the first time.
Private Meningitis B Vaccination at The Medical Chambers Kensington, London
Prevention is better than cure. Immunisation against meningitis is very safe and can protect against more than 90% of bacterial meningitis. Our private paediatricians (doctors who specialise in child health) can provide all the healthcare needs for babies and children of all ages.
As well as monitoring your child’s development, and providing personalised care when your child is unwell, they offer private routine immunisations including the private meningitis B vaccine (sometimes known as the meningitis b jab). Furthermore they can follow the vaccination schedule of your choice – British, French or American.