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Take action, defeat meningitis

Join Sunday Times Connect, in partnership with Sanofi Pasteur, for an online event about protecting your loved ones from meningococcal meningitis

12 May 2021 - 15:31
The biggest challenge with meningitis is that it is so often misdiagnosed.
The biggest challenge with meningitis is that it is so often misdiagnosed.
Image: 123RF/Olesia Bilkei

Meningococcal meningitis is a disease in which membranes around the brain and spinal cord become inflamed. It’s a potentially fatal disease that can have a life-changing, permanent impact on survivors, even when adequate treatment is provided. Each year meningococcal meningitis affects about 2.5-million people, resulting in about 230,000 deaths.

World Meningitis Day falls on April 24 each year, and this year’s theme was Take Action #DefeatMeningitis. A recent online event hosted by Sunday Times Connect, in partnership with Sanofi Pasteur, focused on how to protect your loved ones from meningococcal meningitis.

Meningococcal meningitis can easily be misdiagnosed as early symptoms are often mistaken for flu, or other illnesses such as malaria or even Covid-19. Not many people are aware of the disease, which is why it’s so important to educate people about how to take preventive measures.

Meningitis is a medical emergency that can result in death within 24 hours. Being able to recognise the symptoms to act quickly is critical. Typical symptoms include fever, headaches, vomiting, muscle, leg or joint pain, pale skin, irritability or sleepiness, sensitivity to light, neck stiffness, cold hands and feet, or a blank staring look. Babies with meningitis can have neck retraction, no interest in their food, and bulging fontanelles.

One in five people who survive meningococcal meningitis experience lifelong and serious sequelae. 

Meningococcal meningitis is a particularly serious infection that occurs when the meningococcal bacteria “invades” the body from the throat or nose. Though the disease is uncommon — in SA less than two people per 100,000 get the disease, resulting in between 80 and 100 infections each year — the disease has serious consequences.

Lee Baker, owner of Amayeza Information Centre, says SA may be underestimating the burden of meningococcal meningitis, given that the country does not have the resources to capture all incidences of the disease. Amayeza is an independent medicine information centre. Baker is also the president of the SA Society of Travel Medicine and a member of the SA Malarial Elimination Committee. 

The biggest challenge with meningitis is that it is so often misdiagnosed, and patients suffering from the disease are sent home with treatment for an upper respiratory tract infection. It’s only about 12 to 15 hours later that meningitis symptoms appear, and then the only way to confirm a meningitis diagnosis is to do a lumbar puncture and run a laboratory test, says Dr Nasiha Soofie, head of medical at Sanofi Pasteur Vaccines in SA.

Though the early diagnosis of meningitis is clearly an advantage, treatment is no guarantee of a full recovery. Fortunately, SA offers a vaccine proven to be effective in preventing meningitis infections, says Soofie. 

Babies under the age of two and HIV/Aids patients should receive two doses of the vaccine three months apart, while others should receive only one dose. Patients need to request the vaccination through their healthcare practitioner, who will advise the most appropriate dosage.

Watch the event below: