What is Meningitis and How Can We Prevent It?

By Kathleen Mory

There are many ways a person can get sick. Whether it is through human contact, consuming a substance, or even just breathing the air, as humans we constantly have reason to take precaution against illness. Infectious disease is one of the easiest transmittable and avoidable forms of illness. By simply washing one’s hands or covering the mouth when sneezing or coughing, one can significantly decrease the amount of germs that can be passed from person to person. The spread of meningitis within communities is a prime example of this. The infection is often spread in areas that contain people in close quarters, such as schools or offices, due to frequent contact with those who are non-symptomatic.

Meningitis can come in a number of different strains, both bacterial and viral. Headaches, nausea, vomiting, a stiff neck and photophobia (sensitivity to light) are all common symptoms of meningitis. When someone suspects that they are suffering from this condition, he should contact his doctor immediately for evaluation. Because meningitis presents itself in both viral and bacterial strains, each case may be different and therefore, the treatment approaches for each case are unique. Usually, the infection is spread through bacteria, but in some cases medication or other illness can be the culprit. Bacterial strains are highly contagious and spread easily from person to person from lung and throat secretions, such as sneezing or kissing. Viral strains spread from cross-contamination of fecal matter, often caused by lack of hand washing after using the restroom or changing a diaper. This is why semi-isolation, or quarantine, while a person is symptomatic is extremely important when treating meningitis. While symptoms are present a patient is highly contagious.

Dr. Roman Tuma, both a Board Certified Infectious Disease Specialist and Chief Medical Officer at Easton Hospital, explains the disease at its root, “Meningitis is a condition that causes a headache and a stiff neck when the linings that cover the brain and spinal cord, called meninges, get inflamed or infected.”

Modern medicine has provided a response to Meningococcus, a bacterium that can cause meningitis, through a vaccine called the Meningococcal vaccine. There are two different vaccines, the Meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine (MPSV4) and Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4), available in the United States today. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that pre-teens and adolescents receive the vaccines starting as young as 11 years old. This is followed up by a booster vaccine at 16 years old. However, children as young as 2 years old have been cleared to receive the MCV4 vaccine if they have been exposed to someone who is symptomatic of meningitis. This is an essential part of prevention in young people, especially those between the ages of 16 and 21, who are at the highest risk for contraction. Tuma stresses, “Vaccination is important in preventive measures.”

This preventive tactic rings especially true in the hearts of parents who are sending their children back to school or off to college for the first time. Schools, because of their close quarters, can be a breeding ground for many types of germs. Simple preventative actions, such as washing one’s hands with antibacterial soap after using the restroom and covering one’s mouth when sneezing or coughing, can slow or even stop the spread of germs. Also, it is important to instill the practice of not drinking from other people’s cups or eating other’s food, as this is also a way to pass along bacteria.

The state of Pennsylvania has also taken precautionary measures against the spread of meningitis in dormitories at higher education institutions. In 2002, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed Senate Bill 955 which states, “…a student at an institute of higher education may not reside in a dormitory or campus housing unit unless the vaccination against meningococcal disease has been received, or a student (parent or guardian for minors) may sign a written waiver verifying they have chosen not to receive the meningococcal disease vaccination for religious or other reasons.  The institute of higher education is not required to pay for the vaccination, but institutions are required to disseminate the information to affected students.” This means that to ensure the safety of all college students, Pennsylvania is requiring the vaccine, unless religious or special circumstances exist. By doing this, the rate of vaccination increases and keeps children more protected during crucial years.

For more information on meningitis and prevention, please visit http://www.cdc.gov/meningitis/index.html.

Dr. Roman Toma
Board Certified Infectious Disease Specialist
Chief Medical Officer, Easton Hospital
Infectious Disease Associates
3735 Easton Nazareth Hwy Suite 201
Easton PA 18045
(610) 923-9663

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL)
“50 State Summary of Meningitis and State Laws”

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