While many of us parents are in the midst of helping our families fight cold and flu germs this time of year, we should all be aware of another potential illness that can affect our children. Meningitis, while less common than a cold or stomach bug, can be very serious for children from infanthood through young adult years.
Meningitis is a disease that causes inflammation around the brain and spinal cord. The inflammation can be caused by a virus, bacteria or even a fungus. The most common type of meningitis is caused by viruses. This type is serious but usually not life threatening. Viral meningitis will usually go away in 1-2 weeks.
Bacterial meningitis is rarer, but also more serious, as up to 20% of people who get it will die. Of those who survive, 1 in 5 will have permanent disability, including brain damage, loss of limbs and hearing loss. The symptoms of meningitis include: high fever, headache, stiff neck, light sensitivity, rash and confusion.
When considering the pediatric and young adult population, infants under age one and young adults aged 16-23 are at highest risk for contracting bacterial meningitis.
Luckily, a vaccine is available to fight this bacterial meningitis. Haemophilus influenzae type B is the most common bacteria to cause meningitis in children under age 5. Since use of the Hib vaccine began, the number of cases of this invasive disease has decreased by 99%. This vaccine is given at ages 2 months, 4 months, 6 months (depending on brand of vaccine used), with a final booster at age 12-15 months.
Young adults are at higher risk for meningitis caused by meningococcal bacteria. It spreads through everyday activities and those living in close quarters, such as college dorms, are at higher risk. Being in crowded situations for prolonged periods of time, sharing drinking glasses, kissing and staying out late with irregular sleeping patterns are also reasons this group is more likely to contract the disease.
There are several strains of this bacteria. Thankfully, there are two different vaccines to protect against the most common types. The vaccine which has been given for several years protects against meningococcal A, C, W and Y. It is given at age 11 with a booster at age 16. The newer vaccine protects against strain type B. It may be given to anyone age 10 who is at higher risk but is preferred to be given between the ages of 16 and 18. One booster dose is needed 6 months after the first.
Meningitis is a serious disease and can be fatal to children and young adults. As with many other serious diseases, vaccines are available to protect the health and well-being of your most important treasures—your children.
Lea Floberg, FNP-C, is a Family Nurse Practitioner providing Family Practice care at CHI St. Alexius Health Dickinson’s Medical Clinic. Lea and her husband live in Richardton and have three children - two in high school and one in college.