New findings have given us hope in the fight against childhood meningitis

Childhood meningitis can be caused by a virus or a bacterium. Either way it’s serious, even though it’s often difficult to tell them apart.

However, we must distinguish between them because bacterial meningitis will improve in a matter of hours with antibiotics. It is often accompanied by a deep purple rash that doesn’t disappear on pressure from a glass. It’s crucial we spot it because one in three children who get bacterial meningitis will suffer permanent disabilities.

It’s just as crucial for babies and children to have the meningitis jabs to prevent these serious complications. That means giving MenB to all babies at eight and 16 weeks with a booster after 12 months along with MenC. MenACWY is for teenagers and over-25s who’ve never had MenC.

Researchers at the prestigious Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, have, for the first time, identified the long-term health hazards of bacterial meningitis such as impaired cognition, motor disability, impaired or lost vision and hearing. When children are affected by permanent impairment it has a major impact on the family.

“Those affected need health care support for the rest of their lives,” says Federico Iovino, associate professor at Karolinska Institutet, and one of the authors of the current study.

The team studied 3,500 children with bacterial meningitis between 1987 and 2021 by analysing data from the Swedish quality register and compared them with more than 32,000 matched controls from the general population, the average follow-up time being over 23 years.

The results show that children who were diagnosed with bacterial meningitis consistently have a higher prevalence of neurological disabilities such as cognitive impairment, seizures, visual or hearing impairment, motor impairment, behavioural disorders, or head injuries. It seems that head injuries top the list with 26 times the risk.

Hearing impairment is rated as being eight times the normal risk, while motor impairment comes in at almost five times the risk. About one in three people who’d had bacterial meningitis had at least one neurological impairment compared to one in 10 among controls.

“This shows that even if the bacterial infection is cured, many people suffer from neurological impairment afterwards,” says professor Iovino.

So what does the future hold for these scientists? Prof Iovino explains: “We are trying to develop treatments that can protect neurons in the brain during the window of the few days it takes for antibiotics to take full effect. We now have very promising data from human neurons and are just entering a preclinical phase with animal models. Eventually, we hope to present this in the clinic within the next few years.” Excellent news.