There are certain diseases that instantly cause dread and fear when spoken about, especially when it comes to our kids. The mere mention of polio, measles, and meningitis create panic and fear within a community and I should know – I’m the father of an infant and every time we’re told one of these diseases is in circulation, my anxiety level goes up. Most recently, an unusual increase of viral meningitis has been observed in the western part of Michigan, and also in southern Maine. This has health officials very concerned yet determined to inform the public about its increased community presence.
But what is viral meningitis exactly, and how can you protect yourself and your family from this illness?
First, we need to understand what part of the body meningitis affects. The meninges (meh-nen-gees) are the protective layer of tissue that cover your brain and spinal cord. Based on the organs that your meninges protect, you can tell that they perform a very important job. Along with the meninges, a fluid bathes your brain and spinal cord to provide nutrients (called cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF for short). However, it is this CSF fluid that, when infected, leads to meningitis. Your meninges also rely on other tissues to support and enhance its ability to protect your nerves and brain. For example, certain cells in the nervous system produce and secrete fluid that provides nutrients to the brain and spinal cord.Because your meninges perform such a vital protective function, if they become inflamed or infected it can become a life and death battle. The meninges are vulnerable to bacterial, viral, fungal and even parasitic infections and when this happens we call it meningitis (think meninges-itis). While these are the most common causes of meningitis, the condition can also be caused by other viral illnesses the body is fighting such as the measles, mumps or the flu, cancer, illegal drug use and physical injury.
Viral meningitis is the most common type of meningitis and it’s the type currently circulating in Michigan and Maine. It spreads more readily during the summer and fall months but it is less severe than bacterial meningitis. The initial symptoms are similar to those of bacterial meningitis (fever, headache, stiff neck and sensitivity to bright light), but most people with viral meningitis usually recover within 7-10 days without treatment.
Again, it is possible for viral meningitis to be caused by another illness your body is fighting, particularly another viral infection. Some of the common causes of viral meningitis are viruses such as the Mumps, Measles, Influenza, Herpes, and non-polio enteroviruses. There are no specific treatments for viral meningitis, as antibiotics are ineffective against viruses (though it is a different story for the less common and more virulent bacterial meningitis, for which you can vaccinate against). But as you’ve probably noticed, many of the viruses I named that cause viral meningitis are vaccine preventable, so the best way to protect against it is to make sure that everyone in your home is vaccinated against those preventable illnesses on schedule.
As with most viral infections, children under the age of five are particularly vulnerable, as are those with weakened immune systems. Since my son is 10 months old and is too young to be fully vaccinated against many of the viruses and bacteria that can lead to meningitis, this is something I worry about whenever I see a public health notice that the measles or flu are circulating in our area. It is paramount that prevention methods are taken to protect those who are most vulnerable in our families and communities. In addition to vaccinations, the best prevention against spreading disease is always hand washing. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands and make sure that you wash hands after blowing your nose, using the toilet, or changing diapers; cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper sleeve, not your hands; and most importantly, for the good of all, please stay home if you are sick.
I was about to become a father for the first time last year when Ebola cases appeared in American hospitals, and even as a public health professional that knew the risks, it made me uneasy. It’s hard for parents to know when a disease is being over-hyped in the media, as was the case with Ebola, versus when there is legitimate concern. But where viral meningitis is at play, parents should be concerned, not panicked, and taking steps to protect their families against the condition.
As we approach the winter months, now is the time to get those shots, checkups and review good hygiene practices with your family members. And if you experience any of the symptoms I mentioned, please see your physician in a timely manner.