Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Meningococcal Meningitis

Advice from Dr. Nithya Sunder

Recently some teenagers in Chicago were infected with bacterial meningitis, specifically meningococcal meningitis. Two of these teenagers died from this illness, a 15 year old girl on March 6th and an 18 year old boy on April 15th. Both were from the Austin neighborhood in Chicago. Both had the type C strain of the disease. 10 cases have been reported so far this year in Chicago. Last year 13 cases were diagnosed, compared with 3 cases per year the previous 5 years according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Meningococcal bacteria can cause everything from pneumonia to meningitis, joint infections, seizures and sepsis. Complications can include shock, limb loss, hearing loss, brain damage, or death. The infection is highly contagious and is spread by contact with respiratory droplets or throat secretions. Symptoms include headache, stiff neck (especially when tilting your head down), high fevers, and a purple rash that looks like bruising. The rash typically does not change colors with pressure.

Meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection that causes inflammation of the meninges, the layer of tissue that covers the brain and spinal cord and contains spinal fluid. The diagnosis of meningococcal infection is based on bacteria growing in blood or spinal fluid cultures. Because the infection can progress quickly to severe illness you should contact your doctor right away if you develop symptoms, especially the dark bruise-like rash.

Treatment usually includes intravenous antibiotics and appropriate care of associated symptoms like shock. Close contacts also need to be treated with oral antibiotics to decrease their risk of developing the disease.

One way to decrease your risk of developing meningococcal disease is by getting vaccinated. The peak incidence of bacterial meningitis occurs between ages 14 and 19 years. The highest risk of spread amongst kids and young adults occurs in high school students, freshman college students in dorms, people without a functioning spleen and military recruits.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends vaccination for kids between ages 11-18 or other high risk individuals at routine health exams. Currently, at PHA we offer the Menactra vaccine for patients between ages 11-18, especially students entering their freshman year of high school. This vaccine helps protect against 4 strains of meningoccal bacteria- A, C, Y, and W-135. This means that it does protect against the strain identified in the teens infected in Chicago.

If your child is in the appropriate age range and has not had the vaccine, please feel free to discuss the vaccine at your child’s next health check. For more information, visit the CDC website at

Information Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention