Meningitis and septicaemia: one of the biggest fears parents have
Children's Health Vaccines are proving their worth in controlling meningitis and septicaemia, but we do not yet have vaccines for all strains, which is why it’s still so crucial for parents to know the symptoms.
For decades parents in the UK have named meningitis as the disease they fear most. This is not surprising, because bacterial meningitis and septicaemia are diseases that can kill in hours and it is babies and children under five who are at the highest risk of contracting the diseases.
MRF estimates that over the past 20 years there have been on average around 3,200 cases of meningitis and septicaemia every year in the UK. One in ten people affected will die and a third of survivors will be left with life altering after-effects, some as serious as brain damage, amputations, blindness or hearing loss.
Meningitis is the inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. Septicaemia is the blood poisoning form of the disease.
Most cases of bacterial meningitis in the UK are caused by meningococcal bacteria. There are several strains of meningococcal bacteria in the UK, mainly MenB, MenC, MenW and MenY.
Other major types of bacterial meningitis in children include pneumococcal, Haemophilus infuenzae b (Hib), and in babies Group B Streptococcal (GBS), E. coli and Listeria.
Prevention is key
Working for Meningitis Research Foundation over the past 20 years, I’ve seen great progress in the prevention of these devastating diseases. There are now a number of vaccines available to prevent some of the most common types of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia and these vaccines have had a major impact, reducing cases around the world. For example, thanks to international efforts the majority of children worldwide, including in the UK, now have access to vaccines that prevent both Hib and pneumococcal meningitis.
The UK has been a pioneer in meningitis prevention. It was the first country to introduce MenC vaccine in 1999 which reduced in cases of MenC meningitis from over 1000 cases per year to a mere handful. More recently in 2015 the UK became the first country to routinely immunise infants with the newly developed MenB vaccine and early results look very promising with cases having already halved in vaccine eligible groups.
We encourage all parents to take up the offer of the vaccines included in the childhood immunisation schedule.
Whilst great progress has been made in protecting people from some types of meningitis and septicaemia, there’s still work to be done to defeat it both in the UK and around the world.
That’s why it’s still so important for families to be vigilant and know the symptoms. Quick detection and treatment give the best chance of survival.
Tips for parents
- Vaccination is the best way to prevent meningitis and septicaemia
- There are not yet vaccines available to prevent all strains of the disease so knowing the symptoms is important
- You know your child best; check on them often, trust your instincts!
- If you think your child has meningitis or septicaemia get urgent medical help
- Don’t wait for a rash to appear
- If you have been sent home by a doctor but your child’s symptoms progress, go back and get urgent medical help
Symptoms in your child
The symptoms can be found in the table below. Many of the symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia can be similar to those of other childhood illnesses, but a child with meningitis or septicaemia is likely to become rapidly worse.
The first symptoms parents notice in children are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell. Limb pain, pale skin, and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than the rash, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and confusion.
The rash is a well-known symptom of meningitis and septicaemia. If a child gets a new rash or spots parents can use the Tumbler Test: press a clear glass tumbler firmly against the rash. If it doesn’t fade under pressure, get urgent medical help.
But it is really important to not wait for a rash to appear because it is often a late stage symptom and in some cases it never appears. If a parent is worried that their child may be ill with meningitis or septicaemia, they should get urgent medical help.
Parents know their children better than anyone so they should trust their instincts and get urgent medical help if they think their child may be ill with meningitis or septicaemia.
Dislike of bright lights
Vacant/difficult to wake
Cold hands & feet/shivering
Pale or mottled skin
Vacant/difficult to wake
Other signs in babies can be:
Tense or bulging soft spot on their head
Refusing to feed
Unusual grunting sounds
Irritable when picked up, with a high pitched or moaning cry
A stiff body with jerky movements, or else floppy and lifeless
Fever is often absent in babies less than three months of age
For more information about meningitis and septicaemia visit www.meningitis.org or call the free helpline on 080 8800 3344.