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Baylor College of Medicine News

Dangerous bacterial meningitis preventable with safe vaccines

Bacterial meningitis is serious and can be life threatening, but can be prevented with safe and effective vaccines, said an infectious disease expert from Baylor College of Medicine.

"We have a vaccine against all three types of bacterial meningitis," said Dr. Carol Baker, professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at BCM. "Since the vaccines for infants have been introduced, the number of meningitis cases has reduced by 99 percent."

It is important to be aware of the various types of meningitis – meningococcal, pneumococcal and Haemophilus influenza type b, or Hib – because each requires a different vaccine and can affect you at a different age, Baker said.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the lining of the spinal cord and brain. It can be caused by bacteria, the more damaging form, or viruses, which are usually associated with a complete recovery and less severe symptoms, said Baker, also executive director of the Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research at Texas Children's Hospital.

Types of bacterial meningitis

"The good news is that bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotics," said Baker. "The bad news is that it can be life threatening and leave serious side effects such as permanent brain damage and hearing loss."

Children less than two years-old have the highest risk for pneumococcal and Hib meningitis (peak from 6 to 24 months).

In this young group, the first signs of the disease are not specific and progress over a day or two. Both forms may start with a fever, runny nose and decreased appetite, energy and activity.

"The parents will notice a significant change in behavior," said Baker. "Then there may be resistance to move the neck and in the very young, the 'soft spot' is raised up."

"Vaccines for protection against both these types of bacterial meningitis are a part of the routinely, recommended vaccine schedule," said Baker. "They can be given at the same time and require multiple doses beginning at two months."

Baker said it is important to discuss the vaccine schedule with the child's pediatrician or family physician, and get the doses on time to be protected as soon as possible.

The vaccines are very safe and have been studied carefully, Baker emphasized. "These vaccines are critically important to preventing life-threatening disease."

The vaccines offer protection throughout a child's life, Baker said. "Pneumococcal meningitis can occur in adults but they typically have an underlying medical condition."

Meningococcus

The third cause of bacterial meningitis is meningococcus. Children are most at risk for meningococcal meningitis during the first year of life, but there is another peak in incidence and risk in adolescents 15 to 18 years.

Symptoms of meningococcal meningitis develop very quickly, Baker said. "It can begin with fatigue, headache, muscle aches, a purple rash on the legs then arms and within hours shock and coma."

"The meningococcal vaccine is routinely recommended at age 11 years," said Baker.

Texas is one of several states that require children to have the vaccine before entrance to middle school.

Some children and adults with underlying medical conditions and compromised immune systems may need more regular doses of the vaccines. For example, Baker said, children and adults who do not have a spleen may need the vaccine every five years.

There is no vaccine or treatment for viral meningitis but recovery is typical.

On April 24, The Confederation of Meningitis Organisations will host World Meningitis Day to promote awareness about the disease.