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Understanding and Preventing Meningitis

Meningitis is a severe infection that can develop from both viruses and bacteria and causes inflammation of the tissues surrounding the brain (meninges) and spinal cord. It develops from an infection in another part of the body, such as a respiratory or ear infection, that travels through the bloodstream. Fortunately there are three vaccines that can offer protection for ourselves and our children, starting at infancy.

Two types of Meningitis: Viral vs Bacterial

Both viral and bacterial meningitis can cause severe outcomes, however, viral cases are usually less severe. Bacterial infections are typically very aggressive, with risk of severe outcomes and even death occurring within hours of symptom onset. 

The bacteria responsible for bacterial meningitis is Neisseria meningitidis broken down into five types or “serogroups.” These five cause virtually all meningococcal disease in Canada. Those serogroups are labelled A, B, C, W, and Y, and of those, B and C are predominating. Of those diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, 10-15% will be fatal, with 10-20% having long-term complications which can include brain damage, blindness, deafness, skin scarring, organ failure, paralysis, and limb amputation.

Symptoms of meningitis to look out for

Symptoms for both viral and bacterial meningitis can be similar. Signs of infection usually are abrupt and can include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • neck stiffness
  • light sensitivity
  • Rapid onset and progression of feeling unwell

In infants, irritability, poor feeding, vomiting, diarrhea, rash and respiratory symptoms can also be present.

Due to the aggressive nature of the bacterial version of this infection, death can occur within a few hours of symptom onset and is therefore considered a medical emergency if these symptoms are present.

Who’s at the highest risk for meningitis?

The highest risk groups for bacterial meningitis include:

  • Children less than 5 years
  • Adolescents and young adults aged 15-25 years
  • High risk medical conditions (asplenia, complement deficiencies)
  • Increased exposure due to travel or occupation

Bacterial meningococcal disease is naturally found amongst the Canadian population, with up to 10% being asymptomatic carriers. This can increase up to 24% in the higher risk groups, such as adolescents and young adults and can be up to 50% in crowded environments such as university dormitories.

How meningitis spreads

Bacterial meningitis is easily spread through close contact like a cold or flu.  Coughing, sneezing, sharing eating utensils, kissing and close physical contact can spread the bacteria from person to person.  Adolescents are one of the highest risk groups due to their behaviours including sharing items, close quartered living, travelling, and increased physical contact.

Meningitis vaccines to protect you and your children

To decrease the adverse outcomes of meningococcal disease, Canadian national vaccine programs began in the 2000s.  There are 3 types of vaccines available:

  • Meningococcal C vaccine (Menjugate, NeisVac C) that protects against infection from one of the most common types of meningococcal bacteria, type C. This is started at age 2-4 months with a booster dose given at 12 months. Since starting this vaccine, cases in Canada decreased from 202 to 19 cases per year.
  • Meningococcal ACYW vaccine (Menactra, Menveo, Nimenrix) protects against 4 types and is more common in adolescents. This is usually administered between grades 7-9. 
  • Meningococcal B vaccine (Bexsero, Trumenba) protects against the B strain, but also provides cross protection of the other strains and also has shown benefit of protecting from other bacterial infections such as gonorrhea (Bexsero vaccine only). This strain is the most common and deadliest cause of the invasive disease and accounts for almost 60% of cases, or 111 cases per year in Canada. At this time, this vaccine is not funded for the general population in Canada.

Receiving these vaccines is proven to be beneficial at various stages in life, from infancy to early adulthood. An important consideration for immunization versus the risk of contracting meningitis is that the disease itself poses a greater health threat, (including death) compared to any risks or side effects related to immunization. Most commonly, patients experience redness, swelling or pain at the site of injection. Allergic reactions to vaccines are extremely rare with only 1-10 cases per 1 million doses given each year.

The only “cure” for meningitis is prevention. At this time there is no effective treatment to prevent severe and sometimes fatal outcomes. Immunization has saved more lives in Canada in the last 50 years than any other health intervention. It is the single most cost-effective health investment, making it a cornerstone in the effort to promote good health.

As a prevention focused medical organization, the Harrison Healthcare team is happy to discuss your immunization options to ensure you and your family are well protected from meningitis and any other preventable diseases.

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We would like to acknowledge with gratitude that we operate on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations in Vancouver, and of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, Piikani), the Tsuut’ina, the Mountain Nakoda Nations, and the Métis Nation (Region 3) in Calgary. With appreciation, we recognize that these lands have been stewarded by them since time immemorial.

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