Monday Medical: Risks of bacterial meningitis

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■ To hear Tyler Johnson’s story of survival, visit the website for Voices of Meningitis at www.voicesofmeningitis.org.

■ For more information on this disease, visit the National Meningitis Association at www.nmaus.org or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.cdc.gov/meningitis.

— Two years ago, Tyler Johnson, a fifth-grade student from Steamboat Springs, was flown by helicopter from Yampa Valley Medical Center to a Denver hospital. Tyler had become seriously ill with a high fever and a rapidly spreading rash on his feet.

Lab tests never confirmed the cause, but all symptoms pointed to N. meningitidis, bacterial meningitis. Tyler survived the infection but only after amputation of his feet and portions of some fingers.

N. meningitidis is one of the leading causes of bacterial meningitis in children and young adults in the United States. Only about 3,000 people are infected each year in the U.S., but 10 to 15 percent will die, even with treatment. Of survivors, 25 percent will have a permanent disability, such as loss of limbs, deafness or brain damage.

The germ lives in the nose and throat of 5 to 10 percent of people without causing illness. These “carriers” can spread the germ to others by coughing, kissing, sneezing or sharing drinking containers, lip balm or cigarettes.

Infection results when the germ passes through the mucous membrane. It can cause inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) or a blood infection (Meningococcemia). The carrier might never become ill, but a friend sharing a water bottle might become ill within days or hours.

Symptoms are fever, headache and stiff neck (meningitis), and sepsis and rash (meningococcemia); either is referred to as meningococcal disease.

Anyone can get meningococcal disease, but certain groups are at higher risk. Infants younger than the age of 1 account for 16 percent of cases. Infants and young children who are not fully vaccinated carry a greater risk of infection from several meningitis-causing germs, bacterial and viral.

Meningococcal disease rates decline after infancy but increase again in adolescence, peaking between the ages of 15 and 24 years, accounting for 20 percent of cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that certain groups of college students had six times the risk of infection. Many living in dormitories were vulnerable to upper respiratory infections because they smoked or were exposed to smoking and consumed excessive alcohol.

Prevention is based on two principles: healthy lifestyle and vaccination. Hand washing protects you and those around you from meningococcal disease and many other diseases. Always wash hands before eating, after using the toilet or changing a diaper, and after contact with someone’s saliva, respiratory/nasal secretions or used tissues.

Cover your nose and mouth with your elbow when you sneeze or cough, and throw away used tissues promptly. “Not OK to share” is a slogan parents can use with young children when it comes to cups, water bottles, utensils, lip balm, toothbrushes, etc.

Don’t smoke, and always try to keep you and your family away from second-hand smoke. Smokers and second-hand smokers are more likely to be carriers of N. meningitidis and other meningitis-causing germs. Binge drinking also puts your health and safety at risk.

Vaccination protects you from meningococcal disease and is recommended for adolescents 11 to 18 years old, college freshmen and military recruits, international travelers going to the “Meningitis Belt” in sub-Saharan Africa, and those with certain medical conditions, such as not having a spleen.

Tyler’s mother, Shara Ludlum, said Tyler was lucky — he lived. As recently as June, four people in Fort Collins were diagnosed with meningococcal disease; two of them died.

Before your adolescent returns to school or your teen heads off to college, ask your health care provider about the meningococcal vaccine. The Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association offers this vaccine to children younger than 19 for $14. This fall, the VNA will offer the vaccine to adults for $14 for a limited time. For more information, call 970-879-1632.

Janice Poirot is a public health nurse for Routt County with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

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