A young man named Johnny Peacock became one of the brightest stars of last summer's London Paralympics when he won gold in the T44 men's 100 metres event setting a Paralympic record in the process.
Johnny Peacock contracted meningitis when he was just five years old. As a result of the disease, his right leg was amputated below the knee. Whilst in hospital having his prosthetic leg fitted, he told staff he wanted to play football. He was directed to a talent spotting sports day for disabled youngsters, his career in international athletics was launched and he has never looked back. Johnny and other athletes like him have spearheaded the rise and rise of Paralympic sport across all disciplines in the UK and have done wonders to change the attitude and preconceptions of the public toward disability sports.
Most of us have heard of meningitis but few understand exactly what the disease is.
What is meningitis?
Viruses and bacteria are the two most common organisms which are responsible for causing meningitis. The viral form is usually mild although some sufferers can be left with serious and debilitating side effects.
Bacterial meningitis always needs urgent medical attention. The majority of sufferers do recover but many are left with serious after-effects and one in 10 cases will prove fatal. The main bacterial culprits in the UK are; meningococcal, pneumococcal, TB and Hib.
Neonatal meningitis affects very young babies under one month old. Fungal meningitis is relatively rare and is generally caused by the spread of a type of fungus via the blood to the spinal cord.
Meningitis can affect any age group but babies, toddlers and children under five are the highest risk group with over 50% of all cases. In the UK, college students are the next highest risk group. One in four 15 to 19 year olds carries the bacteria in the back of their throats, compared to just one in ten of the general population.
Adults are also at risk with the elderly being particularly vulnerable as their immune systems weaken with age.
Vaccination is the only way to prevent meningitis and not all strains are covered at present.
Signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia
Symptoms appear in no particular order and some victims display no symptoms at all.
Babies and toddlers: fever, cold hands/feet, pale blotchy skin and a rash, refusing food and vomiting, crying and moaning, dislike of being handled, tender bulging fontanelle, drowsy floppy and unresponsive, stiff neck and dislike of bright lights, rapid breathing or grunting and convulsions/seizures.
Children, teenagers and adults: as for babies and toddlers plus; severe headache, confusion, drowsy and muscular stiffness and pain.
The 'glass test'
A rash is one of the more familiar symptoms of meningitis. If the rash does not fade under pressure, this is a sign of meningococcal septicaemia. Some people show either no rash at all or one that appears very late. If someone is ill with a fever and a few spots or a rash that does not fade under pressure, this should be treated as a medical emergency.
How to do the glass test:
Press a clear glass over the spots or rash. If the spots or rash do not fade under the glass, this could be an indicator of meningococcal septicaemia. If the spots fade when the glass rolls over them, the rash may not be serious. Keep monitoring this as the rash can develop into one that does not fade. If the skin is dark and you cannot see the rash clearly, look on paler areas and under the eyelids.
Treatment for meningitis and septicaemia
Bacterial meningitis and septicaemia are life threatening and require immediate admission to hospital for antibiotic therapy. The symptoms of viral meningitis are similar but once the bacterial form has been ruled out, patients are generally allowed to return home where rest, fluids and pain relief will be required until recovery is complete.
A key procedure which may be undertaken in a case of suspected bacterial meningitis is a lumbar puncture. Analysis of the cerebrospinal fluid that protects the brain and spinal cord will show infection if the patient has meningitis. Antibiotic therapy and potentially admission to and treatment in an intensive care unit may be necessary in serious cases.
Antibiotics are not effective against viral meningitis. Treatment usually constitutes painkillers, hydration and rest until the patient recovers. If herpes simplex is identified as the cause, the antiviral drug Aciclovir may be the treatment of choice.
The potential seriousness of meningitis cannot be overemphasised. If any or all of the aforementioned symptoms are observed, medical attention should be sought immediately.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.