The brain and the spinal cord are protected by a fluid called Cerebrospinal fluid. The medics call it CSF. This fluid, which bathes the brain and spinal cord, protecting them from trauma and injury, is an important protection system for your brain and spine. The fluid is encased in a membrane called the Meninges.
Meningitis is basically a disease that causes the meninges membrane to be inflamed. There are many different causes of Meningitis. The more common ones are viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites. The less common causes are cancer, brain surgery and head injuries.
The type of meningitis that has been detected in the Brong Ahafo, Northern and Ashanti Regions is Pneumococcal Meningitis. This type is caused by bacteria called the Pneumococcus. This is a bacteria that lives in the back of the throat. It can be passed from person to person through tiny droplets of fluid from a person’s mouth or throat or nose. The commonest means of transmission are through kissing or sharing cutlery, chewing gum, straws, lipstick and the likes.
The interesting thing about this Pneumococcus bacteria is that most of us already have it in our system.
But 80% of the time, the bacteria remains dormant. The worst it will normally do is to cause other illnesses like ear infections, sinus infections or pneumonia.
But in about 20% of cases, the bacteria causes an infection that travels through the blood and breach the meninges membrane to infect the cerebrospinal fluid. Once the bacterium enters the CSF, it starts to multiply freely, releasing poisons into the fluid, the brain and the surrounding meninges membrane. That’s when the real problems begin.
The infection causes the meninges membrane to swell. It can also cause inflammation of the blood vessels in the brain. At this point, you would start to experience symptoms like headaches, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, rash, confusion, drowsiness chills, cough, chest pains, and an immediate dislike for bright light. In infants, the fontanels – the soft spots on the top of the skull - may be bulging visibly. These symptoms typically become visible one to three days after infection, but it could be quicker. It is important that you consult a doctor immediately you start experiencing several of these symptoms together.
Now, it is important not to panic. Even though it can be transmitted from one person to another, the Pneumococcus bacteria usually pose no threat to a healthy person. It is those with certain pre-existing conditions like alcohol abuse, recent ear or upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, diabetes or complications with their spleen, who stand a higher risk of developing Meningitis from the bacteria.
As we have witnessed in Ghana, Pneumococcal Meningitis can cause death (typically one in every five cases), and it must be noted that about half of the survivors do end up with complications like deafness, paralysis, learning disabilities and brain damage, but the Meningitis itself is very much treatable with antibiotics.
The earlier you start treatment, the better your chances of beating it. It is also a preventable disease; there are vaccines available for infants and some adults under certain conditions. Your doctor will be able to tell you whether you are eligible for any of the available vaccines.
There are many simple ways to avoid catching Pneumococcal Meningitis. As long as you avoid exposure to any nasal, mouth or throat fluids from an infected person, you should be fine. But remember, many of us already have the bacteria, and in four out of five us, it remains completely dormant and harmless. There is no need to stop kissing your perfectly healthy wives, husbands, partners etc. It is exposure to sick people or people whose health status is unknown, that you must be careful about. And since I’m sure you already take due care, I’m sure you will all be fine.
If you do experience any of the symptoms I mentioned earlier - headaches, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, rash, confusion, drowsiness chills, cough, chest pains, and an immediate dislike for bright light – please avoid exposing others to your nose, throat and mouth fluids. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and see your doctor immediately.
Again, there is no need to panic whatsoever. Meningitis is avoidable, and treatable. Just take care of yourselves, and each other.