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November 2001
Vol. 4, No. 11, p 80.
diseases and disorders
Just as the name would indicate, meningitis is an inflammation (-itis) of the meninges, membrane layers that protect the brain and spinal cord. Certain types of meningitis, if left untreated, have an enormous mortality rate—more than 70%—and the rate is even higher for babies and the elderly. Meningitis usually develops as a complication of a diagnostic or surgical procedure or as an infection spread by the blood.

Illness results if the germs
Illness results if the germs cross the meninges, the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.
Meningitis can be viral or bacterial. Viral meningitis, also known as aseptic meningitis, is the more common variety and is not as severe as the bacterial form, often not requiring any specific treatment. Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, is extremely dangerous; 1 in every 10 cases is fatal, and 1 in 7 survivors is left with a severe affliction. People of all ages can carry the disease’s germs for extended periods without becoming ill, because carriers develop a naturally heightened immunity to the disease. Up to 25% of the U.S. population are carriers, and approximately 3000 cases are reported every year.

Although many people carry bacterial meningitis, it is not highly contagious. Far more difficult to catch than the common cold, the disease is not transmitted by casual contact or sharing the same air space. Meningitis can be spread only when respiratory and throat secretions are exchanged through prolonged, close contact, such as by coughing, sneezing, and kissing. The organisms that cause viral and bacterial meningitis are common and live naturally in the back of the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract.

Some symptoms of meningitis mirror those of flu—high fever, stiff neck, headache, and nausea—and can develop in hours or over the course of two days. Other symptoms include confusion, drowsiness, and discomfort to bright light. Infants may appear irritable and lethargic and show a lack of appetite and continued vomiting. Regardless of the patient’s age, intense seizures may occur as the disease progresses.

A diagnosis is made by growing bacteria from a sample of spinal fluid taken by spinal tap. Identifying the responsible bacteria is important for choosing the correct antibiotic to combat the disease. If bacterial meningitis goes untreated, it can lead to coma and lasting disabilities, such as deafness, speech impairment, brain damage, blindness, and paralysis.

The beginning of any treatment of bacterial meningitis is immediate hospitalization, an important step because of the disease’s ability to spread quickly. Antibiotic treatment, which consists of penicillin G, ampicillin, tetracycline, chloramphenicol, or nafcillin, is dispensed intravenously or orally; in some cases, the antibiotics are administered into the spinal column. No specific treatment exists for viral meningitis because antibiotics do not work against viruses.

Unfortunately, no vaccine works against all strains of meningitis. Only certain forms of the disease can be prevented, excluding pneumococcal meningitis, one of the most common types of bacterial meningitis.

High risk
Half of all reported cases of meningitis occur in children under five years of age. The demographic with the next-highest incidence is teenagers, in whom high stress levels, lack of sleep, and other characteristics of adolescence weaken the immune system. Others at high risk include those with spleen disorders, sickle cell anemia, HIV, and diabetes. Cancer patients should take any vaccines two weeks before chemotherapy to lessen their risk of contracting the disease.

Personal hygiene is important in the prevention of viral meningitis. Washing hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after using the bathroom, after changing diapers, before preparing and eating food, and after sneezing and coughing prevents the spread of infection. If at all possible, avoid mosquito bites. Vaccines are available through your local health care practitioner.


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