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Health Department

Bacterial Meningitis


Tell me more about bacterial meningitis.

Meningitis is an infection of the spinal fluid and of the membranes surrounding the brain (the meninges). Before the Hib vaccine was approved for use, Haemophilus influenzae B was the most common cause of meningitis. Now, however, most cases of meningitis are caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae or Neisseria meningitidis.

Bacterial meningitis is a very serious disease, with a 10-15% mortality rate, and 10-15% of those who survive have permanent damage, including hearing loss, loss of limbs, and mental retardation.

How is bacterial meningitis transmitted?

Although epidemics of meningitis do occur, mainly in the "meningitis belt" of central Africa, bacterial meningitis is mainly transmitted by carriers of either S. pneumoniae or N. meningitidis, via direct contact with their respiratory secretions.

What are the symptoms of bacterial meningitis?

The symptoms of meningitis are the same regardless of the cause: fever, headache, and stiff neck. As the disease advances, a rash may appear on the infected person, which are spots of dead tissue, destroyed by the invading bacteria.

Meningitis is an extremely fast-moving infection- there have been cases of people feeling perfectly healthy in the morning and dead by nightfall. Should the above symptoms appear, it is crucial that you seek medical attention immediately.

Because the symptoms of meningitis are identical regardless of whether the infection is caused by a virus or by bacteria, a laboratory diagnosis is crucial to treatment. In the case of a bacterial infection, laboratory tests will also determine the species and type of infecting bacteria so that the right antibiotics can be used.

How is bacterial meningitis treated?

Bacterial meningitis essentially requires hospitalization so that symptoms can be monitored, and so that large doses of antibiotics can be given intravenously. Prompt, appropriate antibiotic therapy can reduce the risk of dying from bacterial meningitis to around 15%.

How can I prevent meningitis?

Vaccines exist against all different types of bacterial meningitis. Vaccines against S. pneumoniae and H. influenzae B (Hib) are part of the recommended childhood vaccination series. A new vaccine against N. meningitidis has just been approved for older children and adolescents, who have a very high rate of bacterial meningitis. It is also recommended for college freshman living in dorms, who are three times more likely than other persons their age to contract meningitis. 

"Pink Book on Immunization" chapter on meningococcal disease: