Babies and young children, students, and those who travel to sub-Saharan Africa are at increased risk for bacterial meningitis, underscoring the importance of both vaccination against the disease and raising awareness of the risk factors and signs and symptoms of meningococcal meningitis, says Dr Muna al-Maslamani, medical director of Hamad Medical Corporation's (HMC) Communicable Disease Center.
“Bacterial meningitis can happen at any age, but infants and young children are more susceptible due to their developing immune systems. Those who spend time in community settings, like schools or college campuses, are also at increased risk because infectious diseases tend to spread where large groups of people gather. Sub-Saharan Africa is known as the meningitis belt, so travel to this region also increases an individual’s risk,” explained Dr al-Maslamani.
Meningitis is an umbrella term for five types of the disease (serogroups of Neisseria meningitidis include A, B, C, W, and Y). It is an inflammation (swelling) of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord and is normally caused by a bacterial or viral infection. However, injuries, cancer, certain drugs and other types of infections can also cause meningitis.
“Bacterial meningitis is the most serious type of meningitis and usually occurs when bacteria gets into the bloodstream and travels to the brain and spinal cord. It can lead to death or permanent disability. It is a medical emergency,” said Dr al-Maslamani. “The good news is that there is a lot we can do to protect against bacterial meningitis. Vaccination and measures like washing your hands often with soap and water and limiting contact with those infected by the disease can help protect against meningitis.”
Last year, the Communicable Disease Center administered around 200 bacterial meningitis vaccines, HMC said in a statement.
Dr al-Maslamani said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a meningococcal vaccine for all children aged two to 18 years, anyone who has been exposed to meningitis during an outbreak, anyone travelling to or living where meningitis is common, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, military recruits and individuals with certain immune system disorders or a damaged or missing spleen.
Dr al-Maslamani says for those who have not been vaccinated, it is important they speak with their healthcare provider about whether vaccination is right for them. "At the very least", she says it is important to understand the risk factors for the disease and common signs and symptoms.
“With prompt treatment, those with the infection can recover but there can be serious complications, such as brain damage, hearing loss or learning disabilities. The most effective way to protect against certain types of bacterial meningitis is to complete the recommended vaccine schedule, to be aware of risk factors and to know the signs and symptoms. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential,” said Dr al-Maslamani.
Dr al-Maslamani says the symptoms of bacterial meningitis can appear quickly and can be mistaken for less serious conditions like the common cold. She says World Meningitis Day, which is recognised on April 24 each year, is an opportunity to raise awareness of the disease, noting that this year’s theme of ‘Life after Meningitis’ underscores the importance of both prevention and prompt treatment.
“Meningitis can strike in a matter of hours but the effects can last a lifetime. This year’s World Meningitis Day campaign focuses on the after-effects of meningitis, which can be life-changing. For this reason, anyone who thinks they are at risk for meningitis should be vaccinated and anyone who thinks they may have meningitis should see a doctor as soon as possible. Bacterial meningitis can be treated effectively with antibiotics but it is important that treatment is started as soon as possible,” added Dr al-Maslamani.