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The Devastating Consequences of Meningococcal Meningitis

Let's Learn About ... Disease Caused by Neisseria Meningitides Bacteria

When medical personnel suspect a patient has meningococcal meningitis, a degree of panic ensues, even for the most confident of medical professionals. Why is that? The fact that meningococcal meningitis tends to strike young and healthy individuals and can progress over a matter of hours to multi-organ system failure or death is particularly anxiety provoking.

Meningococcal disease refers to any disease caused by the Neisseria meningitides bacteria. This is one of the most serious and devastating bacterial infections a person can get. Its most feared complication is meningitis, an infection and inflammation of the fluid and lining around the brain and spinal cord, which can have devastating consequences.

This sneaky bacteria is spread person to person via saliva, and young people are notorious for “swapping spit” (i.e. sharing water bottles/cups/utensils/food, inhaling droplets from someone coughing nearby, or kissing). It is recommended that ALL adolescents, ideally age 11 or 12, get the vaccine with a booster at age 16, before the peak of increased risk. (The incidence is highest among freshmen living in dormitories. Do you remember your tiny dorm room in college? Just picture those germs circulating in that closet-sized room. This and the "swapping spit" scenario are why meningitis outbreaks are particularly devastating and far-reaching on college campuses.)

Younger children and some adults who are high risk may also need the vaccine. Your doctor may recommend more than 1 type of meningitis vaccine to ensure complete coverage against meningococcal meningitis.

Meningococcal meningitis can strike quickly, possibly killing someone within a few hours. Here are some signs and symptoms of bacterial meningitis:

  • High fever with cold hands/feet
  • Drowsy/difficult to wake
  • Severe muscle pain or headache
  • Confusion/irritability
  • Diffuse rash of tiny red "pin pricks" that doesn't blanch with pressure, evolving to look like fresh bruises
  • Neck pain/stiff neck
  • Sensitivity to light

Even when meningococcal meningitis is caught early and treated correctly, there can be severe long-term side effects such as:

  • Hearing loss or deafness
  • Visual impairment or blindness
  • Loss of digits or limbs
  • Damage to major organs
  • Death (in about 7 percent of cases)

Let me tell you about my friend Kyle. In 1995, Kyle was a healthy 16-year-old high school student who woke one morning with a severe headache and high fever. His mom noticed he was acting a little "off" but assumed it to be just the fever.

About eight hours later she noticed a rash and that Kyle was having trouble standing on his own. She took him to the ER where doctors quickly recognized the signs and symptoms of bacterial meningitis and immediately administered antibiotics before even getting confirmatory lab work, because with bacterial meningitis, immediate treatment is essential. Kyle was admitted to the ICU for a week, and his parents were told his prognosis was bleak.

During a three-week hospital stay, Kyle went into acute kidney failure, respiratory failure, and had to have multiple fingers amputated. Thankfully, he survived. Once home, he had 4 more major reconstructive surgeries and skin grafts requiring almost a year of wound care and dressing changes. Today Kyle is an advocate for the meningococcal vaccine. He only wishes he had the vaccine available to him as a teen (The meningococcal meningitis vaccine Menactra was licensed for use in adolescents in the U.S. in 2005; since then the annual incidence of meningococcal disease has decreased 64 percent.)

So the next time your adolescent moans and groans when the pediatrician says he needs a meningitis shot, tell him, “It could save your life.”

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Comments 1 - 2 (2)
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I had meningococcal meningitis in 1980 when I was 20. I was hospitalized 12 days and very lucky to recover. I had eye light sensitivity and couldn’t read or watch tv for 3 months. Still don’t like a night light at night as even with my eyes closed I sense it’s too bright. No problems enjoying sunny days without sunglasses though. I’m 60 now and have early macular degeneration. The doctors advised it usually doesn’t affect people this ‘young’. I hadn’t thought about it until now but wonder if meningitis has a hand in this. Maybe I could have started eye vitamins earlier in my life if I had known this would be a long term effect of meningococcal meningitis. I urge every one to get their child vaccinated!
Marie Boyd/Office Manager PICU
Loved your article... and yes this disease scares me the most and I am not clinical. Wish the news media would push stories of families taking vaccines rather than families that don't want to. :)