It's head to head with childhood cancer as every parent's worst nightmare - and every day about 10 people in the UK and Ireland are affected. Meningitis, and the septicaemia (blood poisoning) that goes with it, strikes with frightening speed, killing one in 10 people who get it. Babies are at higher risk than any other group, but there's a second peak among those aged 15-19.
This week is meningitis awareness week. Every year, charities such as the Meningitis Research Foundation aim to remind us all of the early warning symptoms of the deadly disease. Most people know about the headache, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights, and rash, but babies and small children often don't get these classical symptoms. Instead, they can get less specific symptoms like leg pains; cold hands and feet despite a fever; a moaning, high-pitched cry; or a pale, dusky or blue tinge to the skin. Urgent treatment can literally mean the difference between life and death.
There have been success stories in fighting meningitis. Mumps used to be a common cause of meningitis before immunisation was introduced. Before the introduction of the Hib (Haemophilus influenzae group B) immunisation as part of the childhood vaccination programme in 1992, there were about 900 cases a year of meningitis caused by this germ in the UK, mostly in under-fours. Now that figure has been reduced by 98%. There is also a childhood vaccine to protect against meningitis group C, which has reduced the number of cases by about 95%.
Because many of the remaining cases of meningitis C have been among older teenagers and students, a meningitis C booster is being introduced from September 2013 for those aged 13-15. It can be given at the same time as the current three-in-one teenage booster. Anyone under 25 who hasn't had a meningitis C booster can get one through their GP.
For foreign travellers, immunisation against other forms of meningitis - groups A, Y and W135 - may be recommended. These types are uncommon in the UK but seen much more often in other countries such as Saudi Arabia and parts of Africa. Travellers going on the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia are required to have proof of immunisation against these strains, as well as meningitis C, when they arrive.
But there's controversy too. The most common cause of bacterial meningitis in the UK today is meningitis B. A vaccine against this type of meningitis has been licensed, but in July the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations said it was unlikely to recommend it as part of the routine vaccination campaign. It hasn't been introduced in any other country, and the Committee says it lacks the very large trials needed to show how it affects the number of cases or how it would control the spread of the disease.
The Meningitis Trust is campaigning for members of the public to sign their petition in support of the vaccine, in advance of the next meeting of the committee on 2nd October. Whatever the outcome, it's still important that you spread the word about how to recognise the symptoms before it's too late. You could save a life.
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