World Meningitis Day – Clearing The Myths & Misconceptions

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World Meningitis Day falls on 24 April and this year’s theme is TakeAction #DefeatMeningitis. Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Because of the severity of meningitis and the fact that the disease can take a loved one’s life in under 24 hours, the World Health Organization has approved a Global Roadmap to defeat meningitis by 2030.

Invasive meningococcal disease (IMD) is caused by a bacterium which can lead to more serious manifestations, including meningitis and septic shock. Although uncommon in South Africa, IMD is a devastating illness that largely affects young children. If left untreated, severe long-term consequences can include deafness and brain damage leading to severe cognitive and functional problems, and in the case of septic shock, can include limb amputations.

According to Dr Nasiha Soofie, Medical Head at Sanofi Pasteur Vaccines: “When someone has IMD the most important thing is to act fast. Any delay in diagnosis and treatment claims lives and leaves many others with serious lifelong after-effects.”

Unfortunately, not many people are aware about the disease, and symptoms can be confused with those of other diseases like the flu, malaria, or COVID-19.

“Because IMD most often affects children younger than 10, especially infants, the problem lies in the fact that these younger children are not always able to let you know when they are not feeling well and they can’t clearly communicate what symptoms they are experiencing,” says Dr. Soofie.

“These facts are all the more tragic since IMD can be prevented by immunisation. The best way to protect your family is to make sure they are vaccinated. The meningococcal conjugate vaccine protects against four types of Meningococcal bacteria and is recommended for all infants and children,” says Dr. Soofie. The vaccine can be given along with other childhood immunisations, and can also be used during pregnancy after first having a risk assessment and consultation with a healthcare professional.

Saving a life is as easy as ensuring that you are aware of the signs and symptoms. Here are a few myths and facts about IMD that you should be aware of.

Myth: IMD is easy to diagnose.

  • Fact: IMD is often misdiagnosed as something less serious because early symptoms are similar to flu and other common viral illnesses. Symptoms may include some combination of high fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion, nausea, vomiting, exhaustion, and a purplish rash.

Myth: IMDis only dangerous in young children.

  • Fact: While it is most common in infants younger than one, anyone can get IMD. Also, adolescents, students, and others who live in dormitories, and other young adults are at increased risk of getting IMD compared to children and older adults.

Myth: Meningococcal vaccines can cause meningococcal disease.

  • Fact: It is not possible to get IMD from vaccination. Side-effects from vaccines are generally mild and uncommon and may include redness or swelling at the site of injection which can last up to two days. Meningococcal vaccines protect against the death toll and severe complications caused by IMD.

Myth: Healthy adolescents and young adults don’t have to worry about getting IMD.

  • Fact: IMD is rare, but the risk of getting it increases in adolescents and young adults. The disease can progress rapidly, killing an otherwise healthy individual in 24–48 hours.

Myth: Meningococcal disease is spread by casual contact with an infected person, such as shaking hands.

  • Fact: Meningococcal meningitis is spread through air droplets and direct contact with an infected person. It is not spread through casual contact.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some people missing their immunisations – and the number of IMD cases is expected to rise when people are able to gather in large groups again,” says Dr. Soofie.

Vaccination is recommended, especially for people at higher risk of IMD. This includes people with a damaged immune system, healthy infants, young children attending creche and school children, university students, army recruits, and others living in crowded conditions.

“It’s often said that vaccines save lives, but this is not strictly true – it is vaccination that saves lives. It is imperative that a high level of vaccination coverage is achieved in those populations where they are recommended. This will provide protection for both the individual who is vaccinated, as well as for the communities they live in,” says Dr. Soofie.

This World Meningitis Day, take action to #DefeatMengitis. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist for further information about optimal protection against this devastating disease.

For those wanting to learn more about meningitis, Sunday Times Connect in partnership with Sanofi Pasteur will be holding a Livestream event on Wednesday, 21 April from 13h00 – 14h00. To be part of the live webinar, register here.