Meningitis – what you need to know

Medical Director at Bupa UK
23 February 2016
A baby reaching for a soft toy

You’ve probably seen or heard some of the recent media coverage around meningitis. There have been a number of distressing accounts of children in the UK who have sadly died after contracting the condition.

This has understandably led to a great deal of concern among parents. There’s even a petition asking the government to widen the UK’s vaccination scheme – currently for babies under a year old – to older children.

But what exactly is meningitis? And what is the best course of action for a parent who is concerned about the condition?

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a condition caused when the outer layers covering the spine and brain get inflamed. Babies are at the highest risk of meningitis, which is usually caused by a virus or by bacteria. Viral meningitis is the most common cause, but bacterial meningitis is more serious, and can be life-threatening. Bacterial meningitis is usually accompanied by blood poisoning (septicaemia). The underlying condition that causes these (called ‘meningococcal disease’) is the main infectious cause of death for young children.

Symptoms of meningitis

It’s important to know what the symptoms of meningitis are, so that you can spot any early signs of the condition. This isn’t always easy, for a number of reasons. Firstly, different symptoms may be more prominent at different ages. There are also several symptoms that are not specific to meningitis, so can easily be mistaken for less serious conditions. Finally, there are so many possible symptoms and it’s hard to know what combination they will appear in.

Common non-specific symptoms (which could be caused by another illness) include fever, vomiting, nausea, tiredness, irritability, looking ill, refusing food or drink, headache, aches and pains, and difficulty breathing. Less frequently, there might be chills, diarrhoea or a sore throat.

Symptoms that are much more specific to meningitis are:

  • a stiff neck or back
  • changes in mental state, including confusion, drowsiness, or unresponsiveness
  • a rash that doesn’t disappear under pressure (use a glass pressed against the rash to test for this)
  • shock
  • bright light causing discomfort to the eyes
  • loss of consciousness
  • seizures (fits)
  • (in babies) a bulging of the ‘soft spot’ on the top of the head

If you’re worried about someone who is showing any of these symptoms, you should seek medical help immediately, as meningitis can progress to a dangerous stage very quickly.

About the vaccine

The UK government recently put in place a programme to vaccinate all children under one year old against meningococcal B disease. This is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia in children. Like all vaccines, it works by introducing a small amount of bacteria to the body so that the body learns how to defend itself against the disease using proteins called antibodies. While some may worry about side-effects for infants, it is a safe and effective protection against meningococcal B disease.

The recent stories in the press have been very alarming. It’s understandable that people – especially parents – would like to see as much as possible done to protect children against meningitis. This explains the popularity of the petition, which to date has received over 750,000 signatures. However, the cost for widening the scheme to older children would be considerable. Public vaccination schemes tend to be targeted towards the most vulnerable people. In this case, babies under a year old are four times more likely to contract the disease than any other age group. This should help stop the spread of the disease and in turn protect the wider population, which is why the recommendation was to target this group.

The vaccine can be accessed via the NHS (if a baby is in the target group), or through private clinics, although there are currently vaccine shortages, so there may be a wait, whichever route you choose.


Steve Iley
Medical Director at Bupa UK

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