There’s big news this year on the immunisation front with the advent of two new vaccination programmes to protect kids against meningitis. This really is wonderful news for parents, given how much fear the word meningitis rightly conjures up. Vaccination is one of the greatest public health advances ever to have been introduced.
Together with clean water and proper sewers, it has been responsible for saving the lives of millions of children around the globe. I have two children and they are both fully vaccinated: that way I know I have done all I can to protect them from fatal illnesses, the ultimate way to calm down, and not feel guilty!
For teenagers, we are starting a meningitis W programme this autumn. Figures released have indicated a 400 percent rise in the number of cases of meningitis W over the past five years, particularly in young adults. The meningitis bacteria known as meningococcus has 10 strains with six causing most of the disease worldwide – A,B,C, W, X and Y.
The most common types seen in the UK in cases of meningitis are B and C, but W is on the rise, although it is not clear why. A vaccination known as Men ACWY has been available and used for many years for travellers, but now it will be introduced routinely to prevent the year-on-year rise worsening. The programme will include 17-18 year olds and all students under 25 who are starting university for the first time.
For babies, we are finally introducing the meningitis B vaccination this September. Meningitis B is the most aggressive form of meningitis that we see in the UK and it can kill within hours; when you hear the terrible meningitis stories involving intensive care or limb loss it is meningitis B that is usually to blame.
The new vaccination has taken decades to develop, but thankfully we now have it after a long delay in rolling out the national programme. The jab will be given to babies at two and four months alongside their routine imms.
I’d like to say we can all now relax about meningitis, but all parents still need to be vigilant for the signs as cases will still occur.
Typical symptoms of all types of meningitis are similar and include fever, headache, vomiting, neck stiffness and a dislike of bright lights. It can also be associated with drowsiness, confusion and cold hands or feet. In babies, meningitis will cause poor feeding, lethargy and floppiness.
The well-known rash of meningitis, which doesn’t disappear when pressed, is actually an indication that sepsis (blood poisoning) has already occurred. It is a late sign that occurs once someone is seriously ill. This is without doubt a medical emergency and needs a 999 call.
If you are worried that something isn’t right, then don’t be afraid to act on it. A few months ago an eight-year-old boy was admitted to hospital with meningitis – he had been having his dinner quite normally and told his mum he felt very cold. She told him to go upstairs and sit under his duvet to warm up. When she went upstairs 20 minutes later to see him, he was sitting in bed trying to read with his eyes closed because, as he told her, he had a headache and the light was hurting his eyes.
This was not a child who had ever complained before of a headache. When she took his temperature and it was over 39°C, she decided to take him to hospital. Despite the obvious catalogue of symptoms for meningitis, it was the speed of onset and sudden unusual behaviour that made me react: that eight-year-old was my son who thankfully is now totally fine. My friends tell me he is lucky I am a doctor and reacted so quickly, but I have seen other parents react to meningitis symptoms with the same speed, guided by instinct and trusting themselves to know that something is not right.
The best advice to protect your children against meningitis:
• Be guided by your instinct – like I was
• The rash is a late sign, don’t wait for it to appear
• Ensure your child is fully vaccinated – other bugs we vaccinate against such as HiB also cause meningitis, so there is lots of protection on offer
• Ensure your teenager gets their new vaccination before starting college or uni where outbreaks of meningitis can occur.