What does World Meningitis Day mean?
The letters WMD usually stand for weapons of mass destruction, but on April 24 they will mean one thing and one thing only: World Meningitis Day. The parallel I just drew is not a gratuitous one, though. As a matter of fact meningitis is a very destructive condition that can lead to hearing loss, memory difficulty, learning disabilities, brain damage, gait problems, seizures, kidney failure, shock, and even death. It affects over 1.2 million people a year, and in its most serious and common form –bacterial meningitis- it kills 120,000 people around the world every year. Even when properly diagnosed and treated, about 10% of patients succumb to this disease, and a further 20% end up permanently damaged and disabled.
If meningitis were indeed a weapon, it would be a smart bomb – as oxymoronic as those two words sound together. This is because the symptoms, which include fever, vomiting, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light and drowsiness, closely resemble those of the common flu (other symptoms are confusion, seizures, lack of interest in drinking or eating, and skin rash). You can consider yourself lucky if these symptoms are caused by viral meningitis; this form of the disease usually goes away on its own, even without treatment –which in such a case would mostly consist of bed rest, plenty of liquids, and OTC pain medication.
When it comes to bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, and this is not to sound ominous, death may not necessarily be the worst possible outcome. In this case treatment would involve intravenous antibiotics and cortisone medications, and may or may not also entail draining infected sinuses or mastoids; bones behind the outer ear that connect to the middle ear. However, even if treatment is successful, the patient may still have to live with deafness, brain damage and limb loss for the rest of their lives.
The outlook is not all gloom and doom, though. The good news is that meningitis is preventable, and that’s the entire purpose of World Meningitis Day. The single most effective and safe way to prevent meningitis is the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. American children are regularly given this vaccine as part of the recommended vaccination schedule. This vaccine not only protects against the three major causes of meningitis (meningococcus, pneumococcus and haemophilus) but it also helps to prevent pneumonia, otitis media, septicaemia, and epiglottis.
Other immunization methods are pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV7), haemophilus influenzae type b and Neisseria meningitidis serogroups C and Y vaccine (Hib-MenCY), pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV), and meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4). Further prevention measures include practicing good hygiene habits such as washing hands, covering mouth when coughing and sneezing, and not sharing drinks, foods, straws, eating utensils, lip balms or toothbrushes with anyone at all. Good rest, regular exercise and a healthy diet are also essential to strengthen the immune system against meningitis.
Unfortunately, there are other causes of bacterial meningitis –listeria monocytogenes, for example- that leave people, especially children younger than 5 years of age and adolescents, at risk of experiencing this condition. In consequence, as close as Hib meningitis has come to disappearing, it is still far from being eradicated, lending even more significance to World Meningitis Day. We have to work together to make vaccines equally accessible to children from all countries regardless of their socio-economical status, and support and promote research in order to develop better and more efficient treatments that will ensure that there is life after meningitis, and not just different shades of death.