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What parents need to know about meningitis B

Meningitis is a devastating disease with a high case fatality rate among children and leading to serious long-term complications.

While meningitis is not very common, when it does occur, it can have severe and even potentially fatal consequences, especially in young children.

The following information is essential for parents to understand regarding meningitis and the vaccines that are currently available to protect against it.

What is meningitis?

According to the World Health Organization, meningitis is an infection and inflammation of the fluid and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. These membranes are called meninges. Meningitis is more likely to occur in infants and adolescents, as well as in people who are immunocompromised and have a weakened immune system.

In South Africa, the annual incidence rate of meningitis is estimated to be four per 100,000 cases in the general population, and occurrence is commonly seen in infants, with an incidence of 40 per 100,000.

What are the signs and symptoms of meningitis?

Early symptoms can be difficult to recognise because they begin subtly and are comparable to those of the common cold or the flu. Identifying symptoms in infants can be a particularly challenging endeavour.

According to Dr Christine Palmay, a family physician who focuses on preventative medicine, “the main point to drive home about meningitis B is the initial symptoms are nonspecific and can evolve rapidly”.

“Within the first twelve hours, a patient may only have symptoms that are similar to those of the flu, such as fatigue, fever, and muscle pains, and it is frequently misdiagnosed as influenza. Symptoms can become more severe within twelve to twenty-four hours, including lethargy, stiff neck, tiny bruises on the body, lack of responsiveness, and loss of consciousness. Because it can be so difficult to diagnose, finding the appropriate treatment can be challenging. There is a potential for death in as many as one in ten cases,” explains Palmay.

How to protect your child against meningitis

Meningitis is contagious. The bacteria that cause meningococcal disease are easily transmitted through activities such as coughing, sneezing, sharing utensils, kissing, and other forms of close physical contact. Vaccination is essential for providing protection against meningitis because of this reason. However, given that there is not a single vaccine that can protect against all five groups, receiving multiple vaccinations is necessary in order to be fully protected.

In South Africa, immunisations are provided at no cost at state-run clinics, and babies receive their first vaccines shortly after birth.

For more information on how to protect your child from meningococcal disease, including meningitis B, talk to your primary care provider.

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