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Help Mark World Meningitis Day

April 23, 2020

Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes (meninges) that cover your brain and spinal cord. It’s caused by either viral, bacterial, or fungal infections. From 40% to 70% of people with a meningococcal infection develop sepsis, your body’s toxic response to an infection. It can cause severe illness, lasting complications, and even death.

April 24 is World Meningitis Day. Every year, 5 million new cases of the infection are diagnosed world-wide. In 2017, meningococcal infections caused 300,000 deaths across the globe. Both meningitis and sepsis are medical emergencies.

Viral meningitis

Viral meningitis is the most common form of the disease. Although it can affect anyone, children under the age of 5 and people with a weakened immune system are at higher risk of contracting the infection. “Many viruses can cause meningitis, and these usually spread through respiratory droplets (kissing, coughing, sneezing) or by fecal contamination,” said Professor James Stuart of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations (CoMO). “The most common group, enteroviruses, live in the respiratory and intestinal tracts. They can cause colds and sore throats but from time to time, enteroviruses spread to the meninges and cause meningitis.”

There is no treatment for the viral infection other than supportive treatment. Most people recover well from this form of the disease.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis isn’t as common as the viral type, but it is more serious. “Bacterial meningitis is associated with more severe after effects,” Prof. Stuart explained. “While viral meningitis can make people very unwell, it is rare for it be life-threatening.” The most common causes in the United States are Haemophilus influenzae (most often caused by type b, Hib), Streptococcus pneumoniae, group B StreptococcusListeria monocytogenes (in newborns), and Neisseria meningitidis. The infection is also spread by droplets. The bacterial infection is treated with antibiotics. There are some vaccines that prevent the disease and are generally given routinely to children.

Fungal meningitis

This type of meningococcal infection is the rarest. Fungi are generally inhaled, but they can also be introduced into the body by other ways, such as injection of a contaminated medication. Fungal meningitis must be treated with antifungal medications.

Meningococcal infection is a medical emergency

“Any type of meningitis should be treated as a medical emergency until the cause is determined, particularly as no time can be wasted [if the patient has] bacterial meningitis,” Prof. Stuart said. “Until a bacterial cause can be excluded, incoming patients with suspected meningitis are treated with antibiotics. As antibiotics do not kill viruses, treatment for viral meningitis involves rest and pain relievers.”

This World Meningitis Day, let’s help spread the word, reduce infections and, in turn, reduce the risk of sepsis.

Learn more about meningitis in Sepsis and Meningitis, part of the Sepsis Alliance Sepsis and… library.