As one of the world’s most prolific diseases, understanding meningitis is key to staying safe when travelling
Meningitis is a serious infection, impacting the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. The condition can be extremely serious or even fatal if left untreated, leading to septicaemia and permanent brain and nerve damage.
Although the condition can affect anyone, it is most common in young children and babies, teenagers and young adults. Symptoms usually include a high temperature, sickness, head pain, stiffness, drowsiness, fits and sensory sensitivity.
Meningitis can be spread through everyday behaviours like sneezing, coughing, kissing and sharing objects like cutlery and toothbrushes. It is particularly common in parts of Africa and Saudi Arabia.
There are at least 50 kinds of bacteria that can cause meningitis, but some are far more common than others. We’ve highlighted details of the main bacteria below, to help you understand more of this serious condition.
This bacteria is the most common cause of meningitis and septicaemia in the UK and Ireland. It is most common in babies and children under the age of five, though it can also frequently afflict teenagers.
There are several group of meningococcal bacteria which cause the disease, the most common being meningococcal A, B, C, W and Y (known more commonly as MenA, MenB, MenC, MenW and MenY).
Vaccines against the meningococcal bacteria are routinely available in the UK and Ireland for high risk groups, and these vaccines protect against all five strains.
Pneumococcal meningitis is the second most common cause of meningitis in the UK and Ireland. In some countries, it is the most common cause.
This kind of meningitis can be severe, offering a higher risk of fatality and long-term brain damage than other forms of the disease. It most commonly impacts children under two years old or adults over 65.
Haemophilus influenzae type b
Haemophilus influenzae type b meningitis, more commonly known as Hib meningitis, most commonly affects babies and children under four. Hib meningitis used to be the most common form of meningitis until the introduction of the Hib vaccine in 1992.
Since the arrival of this vaccine, cases of Hib meningitis have dropped by more than 90 per cent.
Streptococcal meningitis occurs in two distinct forms, Group B Streptococcal (GBS) and Group A Streptococcal (GAS).
GBS is the most prominent form of meningitis in newborn babies, and it can be transmitted from mother to baby before or during birth, as well via adults who handle the baby. Between a fifth and a third of pregnant women carry GBS bacteria, but 99% of babies born to mothers with the bacteria are completely healthy. There is currently no vaccination available for GBS but one is under development.
GAS bacteria are most commonly found on the skin’s surface and in the throat. In most cases, it causes mild skin, throat, ear and sinus infections in both adults and children. In rarer instances, invasive infection can occur in the deep tissues and organs, leading to more serious disease.
E.coli is a body which grows even in the bodies of healthy people, but occasionally certain strains can lead to serious disease, such as meningitis. It is most common in newborn babies and people with medical conditions that put them at an increased risk.
Although E.coli meningitis is rare in the UK, it is a greater problem in developing countries, meaning travellers must take care.