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Dr Deborah Mills MBBS ASM

The very word Meningitis strikes fear into our hearts. The media loves the disease because it is so dramatic – but it may give people the false impression that meningitis is a major threat. Meningitis is certainly very serious in those who come down with it, but it is really very rare. For example; an individual is many times more likely to die in a car accident than die of meningitis.

Meningitis means infection of the brain and spinal cord. ( the lining of the brain is called the meninges). There are many different causes of meningitis, with the most common ones being bacterial and viral. The media mainly reports cases caused by the ‘meningococcus’ bacteria. This particular type of meningitis germ can sometimes also cause infection throughout the body – not just in the brain linings. When this happens, the illness is called septicemia and needs to be treated quickly or it can be fatal within 48 hours.

Meningitis is caught like the common cold – from droplets in the air. The funny thing is – the germ is quite common in the community and 90% of people who carry the germ in their body do not get sick. We do not know why the germ grows out of control in some people and not in others. In Australia, the disease is more common in winter.

It is important to be aware that symptoms of a headache plus fever and drowsiness need to be checked out by a doctor ASAP. If the person develops a flat purple spotted rash – that is an extremely very serious sign. ( I once had a patient who was playing squash with a bit of a headache in the morning and developed a fever and the rash in the afternoon. He was whisked into hospital by the evening for the special antibiotics and subsequently made a full recovery )

The Meningitis vaccines on the market DO NOT protect against ALL the causes of meningitis. They only give protection against the meningococcus’ germ and only some of the many strains of that germ. There are two types of meningitis vaccine on the market. One is used in children/adolescents in the UK and gives lifelong protection against group C strains ( which is more common over there).

There is a worldwide shortage of this particular vaccine – a shortage that is likely to continue until early 2003. The other type of meningitis vaccine protects against four strains (A, C, W, and Y) but only lasts 3 years. Vaccination may be recommended for certain parts of the world. The vaccines take two weeks to work so it is best to seek medical advice early if you are travelling overseas so you can find out if any health precautions (including meningitis ) are necessary for your trip.

Author of the book, Travelling Well, Brisbane based Dr Deborah Mills works with organizations that want invincible expatriate personnel – and with people who want to enjoy good health when they travel.


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