THE BLOG

Can We Eradicate Meningitis?

30/09/2013 11:11

Ask parents which infectious disease they'd most like to see eradicated and the answer's meningitis. This deadly condition strikes without warning and its early symptoms can mimic minor illnesses like a cold. Yet within hours a lively infant can become as limp as a rag. Even with treatment, 10% die. One in five survivors has long-term disability such as brain damage, deafness or limb loss. No wonder meningitis is a parent's darkest fear.

Eradication should be possible. Look at smallpox. This month marks 35 years since the last death from what used to be a scourge that used to affect 50m people worldwide every year. Some forms of meningitis are already falling away. Haemophilus influenza B used to be the most common cause of meningitis in childhood, but introduction of Hib vaccine in 1992 has meant its near elimination.

Along came meningitis C immunisation in 1999, now also given to babies with Hib and other vaccines. It's estimated to have prevented over 9,000 serious cases and 1,000 deaths from MenC.

Against that background, perhaps it's no real surprise that, in a recent Opinion Matters survey, over a quarter of parents questioned said that the current immunisation programme fully protects a child against all forms of meningitis.

Yet how wrong they are. Meningitis still kills more children under five than any other infectious disease. These days there are nearly 3,500 cases a year in the UK, over half of them caused by meningococcus B (Men B). And many people carry the bacteria that cause meningitis without becoming ill themselves, which is another reason why it's common, and why we're a long, long way from eradicating it.

Although it was very difficult to develop, there is now a Men B vaccine. It got its UK licence in January 2013, but children don't yet benefit from it because so far it's not part of the routine immunisation programme. It may become available privately later this year.

Until meningitis becomes preventable, it's essential for parents and carers to know the signs. If more children are to survive, meningitis must be recognized and treated earlier.
Meningitis charities do an excellent job of describing the symptoms and causes.

Even so, many parents still wrongly think the classic rash has to be present before raising the alarm. But the rash is a very late sign. By then there's already septicaemia, which means vital organs shut down, and there's a much lower chance of survival, even with the right treatment.

Parents should also trust their instincts. They know when their child is really unwell. Tragically, many of the deaths from meningitis occur after they've been wrongly reassured by a healthcare professional that their child's symptoms aren't serious.