Meningitis – The facts and what you can do

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It almost seems unfair that the regions of the world with the weakest health systems get repeatedly hit with infectious disease outbreaks that they’re poorly equipped to handle. The current meningitis outbreak in Nigeria is a case in point. Even as the Federal Ministry of Health struggles to contain the ongoing Lassa fever outbreak, it also reports an alarming 2,996 cases of Cerebrospinal meningitis since December 2016.  Of those cases, there have been 336 deaths. The numbers suggest that in the present epidemic, roughly 1 of every 10 cases of meningitis results in death.

What is meningitis?

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Cerebrospinal meningitis, also known as meningitis, is an inflammation of the meninges, the thin lining covering the brain and the spinal cord. The inflammation can be the result of infections due to bacteria, viruses, fungi, or from non-infectious causes. It is a disease that occurs worldwide.

Nigeria is a part of the “meningitis belt,” an area spanning 26 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east. In this area, major epidemics of meningitis occur more than anywhere else in the world, every 5 – 12 years, during the dry season. The bacteria Neisseria meningitidis – a family of bacteria with several subgroups – is responsible for these epidemics.

Serogroup A commonly causes the outbreaks in the region. However, widespread vaccination against serogroup A, starting in 2010 has reduced the number of epidemics. The current outbreak in Nigeria is due to serogroup C, a type not common in this area. This unusual occurrence creates a major public health problem because available vaccine protects only against serogroup A. Vaccination campaigns with serogroup C vaccine is ongoing in affected areas, but quantities are limited and more supplies are expected soon.

The statistics in Nigeria confirm what we know about meningitis due to N. meningitidis bacteria. It can be fatal and is a medical emergency. Even with the right treatment, 10% of cases progress rapidly to death within 1 – 2 days. Of those who recover, up to 20% have severe disabilities such as permanent brain damage, deafness, and seizures.

How do you get meningitis?

At present much of the Nigeria outbreak is concentrated in the Northern states but don’t be fooled into thinking it cannot spread to other parts of the country. 1 out of 10 people are “carriers” of the bacteriathat causes meningitis. They carry it in the back of the nose or throat without any signs or symptoms of illness. In some people, the bacteria spreads to the blood and goes on to infect the meninges.

The bacteria can spread:

  • Through the air from coughing, sneezing or spitting
  • Through close contact such as kissing
  • From sharing cups, straws and eating utensils
  • Due to crowded living conditions

The dust winds during the dry season combined with cooler nights and more frequent colds and catarrh at this time of year also put you at greater risk for meningitis.

How do you know if you have meningitis?

General symptoms such as fever and vomiting occur in meningitis as they do in conditions such as malaria and typhoid fever. However, the combination of a severe headache, neck stiffness, confusion, sensitivity to light, vomiting, and fever occurs most commonly in meningitis and requires urgent medical attention. The symptoms are due to swelling and irritation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord by the infection.

Other symptoms include:

  • Rash
  • Sleepiness or difficulty waking
  • Seizures

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How is meningitis treated?

Bacterial meningitis is a serious illness, and early diagnosis and treatment is the key to survival. Hospital admission is necessary for treatment with intravenous (IV) antibiotics.

Things you can do to prevent meningitis

Meningitis is contagious and life threatening. You can protect yourself and family by taking simple actions:

  • Wash your hands – regular hand-washing with soap stops the spread of germs.
  • Practice good hygiene – Don’t share drinks, foods, eating utensils, cups, straws or toothbrushes with others.
  • Practice good cough etiquette – Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Do not spit in public.
  • Stay healthy – Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and exercise regularly will keep your immune system strong.
  • Get vaccinated – If a Meningitis Vaccination Campaign is in your area, take the opportunity

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