Meningitis Outbreaks Can Kill

Meningitis Outbreaks Can Kill

Meningitis is a scary illness. It has several causes, and some types of meningitis get better by themselves or with antibiotics. Other types of meningitis, however, can be deadly.

College and University Outbreaks of Meningitis

Meningitis has been in the news in recent months. An Ohio University student died from bacterial meningitis in 2010; the university settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by her family in February 2015. At least six Ohio University students were diagnosed with the illness in during the 2009-2010 academic year. In March 2015, six students at the University of Oregon became infected. The university began a campaign to have all students vaccinated. In some cases, families of students who contracted meningitis have been awarded substantial compensation. College outbreaks also occurred in 2013. Four students, including one who had to have both feet amputated, contracted the disease at the University of California Santa Barbara. Seven students and a visitor to campus were infected around the same time at Princeton University in New Jersey. Some of the students who were affected by these outbreaks have been awarded compensation.

The particular strain that affected the students in California and New Jersey was the rare strain B of the disease. Vaccines are apparently ineffective against this strain, making early diagnosis and treatment critical. There were 160 known cases of strain B meningitis in the United States, including the cases in New Jersey and California.

Contaminated Medication

Last December, officials at a Massachusetts company that produced a drug tainted with fungal meningitis were charged with various crimes, including second-degree murder. The outbreak in 2012 that was traced to the drugmaker made 750 sick and killed 64.

What Is Meningitis?

Meningitis is a relatively rare infectious illness that causes the membranes in the brain and spinal cord to swell. In addition to bacterial meningitis and fungal meningitis, people can be made ill by viral meningitis, which is usually a milder form of the disease. The disease can worsen quickly, leading to death within hours. In fact, 10 to 15 percent of people who contract the disease die. Another 20 percent survive with significant disabilities that include hearing loss, brain damage, kidney disease and limb amputations. Young people are especially susceptible to the illness.

Prevention is Critical

Vaccination exists, but one in five American teens has not received the first dose of the recommended vaccine. Less than one-third of those who received the first dose have received a booster shot, according to the National Meningitis Association. Prevention through vaccination is particularly important because the illness can mimic other diseases, such as influenza, and because it can lead to death so quickly. The same germs that cause bacterial meningitis can also poison the bloodstream, resulting in sepsis.

Fungal and Viral Meningitis

Fungal meningitis, the form of the disease that killed 64 people in 2014, is rare, usually occurring in victims with compromised immune systems. Unlike bacterial meningitis, the illness is not spread from person to person. Rather, victims have almost always been exposed to one of several fungi that cause the disease. Inhaling soil contaminated with bird and bat droppings is a common mechanism for spreading the illness. This is particularly the case in the Midwest, around the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. One type of fungus associated with the disease is thought to exist primarily in soil that is rich in decaying organic matter. When soil is disturbed, the spores become airborne and can be inhaled. When the infection that results from contact with the spores spreads to the spinal cord, meningitis is the result.

Fortunately, the most common form of meningitis - viral - is also the mildest. However, infants and those with compromised immune systems are most likely to experience serious illness. It is most commonly caused by non-polio enteroviruses as well as the viruses that cause mumps, herpes simplex (chickenpox and shingles), measles, influenza viruses and West Nile virus.

Cause of Meningitis Deaths Varies

In the case of the Ohio college student, the meningitis was apparently not diagnosed at the university health center, even though there were other cases on campus at the time. In the case of the fungal meningitis caused by contaminated steroid injections used to treat back pain, the contamination appeared to be the result of dirty conditions at the compounding pharmacy where the injections were pre-packaged. Malfunctioning sterilizing equipment, tainted ingredients or just sloppy work by employees appears to have been the cause.

Symptoms of Meningitis

Symptoms of meningitis usually include:

  • Sudden high fever
  • Severe headache that isn't easily confused with other types of headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Vomiting or nausea with headache
  • Confusion or difficulty concentrating
  • Seizures
  • Sleepiness or difficulty waking up
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Lack of interest in drinking and eating
  • Skin rash in some cases, such as in meningococcal meningitis

Don't Ignore Symptoms: Get Treatment.

Because many of these symptoms also occur in other illnesses, especially influenza, it is important to be aware of those symptoms that are particularly associated with meningitis: sudden, very severe headache and stiff neck. If you have those symptoms, it is important to get a diagnosis quickly because bacterial meningitis in particular can be deadly without treatment.