What Parents Need to Know About Bacterial Meningitis

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Boy Gets Meningitis Vaccine

Bacterial meningitis is a disease in which the protective lining around the spinal cord and brain – called the meninges – becomes inflamed.  This inflammation is usually caused by an infection, which could be caused by a virus (viral meningitis) or bacteria (bacterial meningitis).  

Bacterial meningitis has been a very hot topic in the news the past few years, as several college campuses have experienced outbreaks among students in the dorms.  If you’re a parent, you may be wondering whether your children should be vaccinated.

What’s the Difference Between Bacterial and Viral Meningitis?

Viral meningitis is the more common of the two, and can be caused by a number of different viruses (including the mumps and measles viruses).  Most cases of viral meningitis resolve themselves within seven to ten days, with no need for medical intervention.

Bacterial meningitis is much rarer, but can be life-threatening without immediate medical attention. Without treatment, the case-fatality rate (the percentage of patients who die as a result of the disease) can be as high as 70 percent, and one in five survivors of bacterial meningitis may be left with permanent complications like hearing loss, neurologic disability, or loss of a limb.

Because of their constant and close social contact, kids and teenagers are generally at a higher risk of contracting bacterial meningitis. Full-scale outbreaks usually occur in places where people are in close contact with each other – such as in college dormitories, boarding schools, or on military bases.

Someone suffering from bacterial meningitis may experience symptoms like:

  • Fever
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confused mental state
  • Increased sensitivity to light

If you suspect your child has bacterial meningitis, it’s important to get him or her to the doctor immediately.

What to Know About the Vaccines Available

Because preventing a disease is always much easier and safer than treating one, meningitis vaccines are in high demand.  However, it can sometimes be a bit complicated for parents to research the vaccinations available, because there are 12 types of bacterial meningitis.  These 12 types are divided into 12 “serogroups,” which are groups of bacteria that contain a common antigen (a particular substance that causes an immune response). A meningitis vaccine will usually cover one or more serogroups, and subsequent vaccines should be administered at different points in your child’s life.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has developed a recommended schedule for meningococcal vaccines. Starting at 11 or 12, children should be vaccinated with a single dose of a meningococcal conjugate vaccine, which protects against multiple serogroups.  A booster (an additional dose) is recommended around age 16.  Brand names of this vaccine include Menveo®, Menactra®, and MenHibrix®.

Last year, the FDA licensed two serogroup B meningococcal vaccines: Bexsero® and Trumenba®. It’s now recommended to also be vaccinated with one of these serogroup B vaccines between age 16 and 23.  Your child’s pediatrician will discuss with you how many doses of the vaccine are needed.

Despite the age recommendations listed above, any child (or adult!) at an increased risk of contracting bacterial meningitis should be vaccinated.  Ask your doctor if you think this may be you.

Talk to Your Child’s Doctor About Meningitis Vaccination

The best source of information about vaccination for bacterial meningitis is your pediatrician.  Ask your child’s doctor which vaccinations they should receive and when.  If you’ve ever changed pediatricians, be sure to bring your child’s immunization history and medical records with you to the appointment.

And if you have college-aged children or kids living in close quarters away from home, be sure that they know the symptoms of meningitis and to get themselves to urgent care if they start to experience them.