Meningitis: viral versus bacterial

There are recent  reports out about an outbreak of meningitis in a school district in Oklahoma. Why this hasn’t made national news is that the infections have been verified to be viral meningitis. Viral meningitis (also called aseptic meningitis ) is caused predominantly in the US by enteroviruses. These viruses  can be spread via respiratory secretions (kissing,  sneezing, sharing drinks) as well as through fecal contamination of ingested foods. Infections with these viruses usually cause  mild symptoms (which can vary depending on age). Most symptoms include stiff neck. fever, vomiting and nausea.  However, treatment is simple bed rest and patients were sent home to recover on their own.

So what is the difference between viral and bacterial meningitis?

Bacterial meningitis can be much more deadly and requires hospitalization and treatment with antibiotic therapy. One form, called meningococcal meningitis is actually very deadly. It can cause severe disease  such as brain damage, hearing loss, loss of limbs, coma and death if not treated with antibiotics in a timely manner. Outbreaks in the US are usually limited to a few individuals. As a matter of fact, the same region of Oklahoma had an outbreak of meningococcal meningitis in March, in which six children were infected and two of those patients died.

Luckily we have  vaccines that can prevent infections with the most common strains of this organism, Neisseria meningitidis.

But where this bacteria is most letha, most deadlyl is in Africa. There is something called a meningitis belt in Africa where thousands of infections occur every year. Currently, there is an outbreak of meningitis in Burkina Faso where 718 people have died since the first of the year, 80% are between the ages of  2-30.

What is especially problematic,  the strain of bacteria that is causing at least half of the mortality associated with this disease is a newly identified strain, termed strain X. Because it has never been seen before, it is not included in any vaccine, antibiotics are all we have to prevent severe illness.  Heath care workers are calling this an infection at epidemic  levels. So far, over 5000 people have been treated for exposure to this organism.

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