Increasing incidences of Meningitis in Australia

Every now and again there is news about yet another case of a meningococcal outbreak in Australia.
According to the Meningitis centre Australia, ‘Bacterial meningitis is aggressive, develops quickly and can lead to permanent disability or death in a matter of hours. It is fatal in approximately 50% of cases and accounts for around 170,000 deaths around the world each year. On the other hand, Viral meningitis is the most common but least severe type. Almost all patients recover without any permanent damage, although full recovery can take many weeks. It is most often spread through respiratory droplets (kissing, coughing, sneezing, sharing food or utensils) or faecal contamination. Elderly people and those with conditions that affect their immune system are more at risk’.

So, what is Meningitis?

Meningitis is an infectious disease that causes the outer covering of the brain and the spinal cord (meninges) to swell. A wide spectrum of virus and bacteria are responsible for this. Bacterial meningitis or the meningococcal infection can be deadly and requires immediate medical attention. The recent outbreak of meningococcal infection in Australia has raised quite a bit of concern among people. One of the most affected was the aboriginal community of central and western Australia in October last year.

Several strains of the meningococcal bacteria can cause the infection; the recent outbreak is of the W strain, the deadliest of all strains. Almost 5% of the patients do not survive, and some  who do survive, suffer from permanent disabilities such as brain damage and hearing loss. Haemophilus meningitis was prevalent in Australia. The advent of Hib vaccines in 1992 dramatically declined the incidence of the infectious disease of this type. Currently, the common types of meningococcal strains are A, B, C, W and Y.

As discussed earlier, both virus and bacteria cause meningitis. In some rare cases, fungi, parasites or even malignancies take the role. Meningitis is classified into several types:

1. Bacterial meningitis
• Pneumococcal meningitis
• Haemophilus meningitis
• Meningococcal meningitis
• Group B streptococcal meningitis

2. Viral meningitis

3. Fungal meningitis

Viral meningitis is not life-threatening. Adequate rest and fluid intake can make one recover from the disease. It is not the same in the case of bacterial meningitis, especially, meningococcal infection.

Meningococcal infection is contagious. It can spread from saliva or mucus of the infected person. Close contact with the infected person aids in the spread of the disease. Sneezing, coughing and intimate kissing lead to the transmission of the bacteria, ultimately leading to the infection. About one in ten people carry the bacteria in their respiratory system and they are asymptomatic. Such individuals can unknowingly transmit the infectious agent to others.

The disease is a medical emergency and the purple rash on the skin signifies that the disease has escalated to a critical point. The infection follows symptoms such as fever, irritability, diarrhoea, convulsions, pale skin, purple rashes, photophobia, loss of appetite, joint and muscle pain, cold hands and feet, drowsiness, vomiting and rapid breathing. Sadly, two-thirds of the meningococcal cases are infants and toddlers. Do not ignore bulge in the fontanelle, high-pitched cry and arching of the neck as they are the symptoms of meningococcal disease in infants and toddlers.

The fatal nature, meningococcal infection brings about several complications like amputation, brain damage and disabilities in the survivors. It is wise to consider preventive measures rather than a cure.
The recent outbreak made the government respond through the vaccination programme. In June 2017, the government implemented ACWY vaccination programme. This programme targets young adults aged 15 to 19 years. In addition, vaccines for meningococcal B and C strains are available. Hib vaccine gives protection against Haemophilus meningitis; it is part of the national immunization programmes.

There are no vaccines available to prevent viral or fungal meningitis. It is recommended to wash hands properly, keep the place clean and avoid being exposed to fungal agents such as dust or bird droppings.


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