It’s every paediatrician’s nightmare. A child arrives in the Emergency Department with a high fever, a rash whose spots don’t go white when you press them under a glass and who turns their head away from the light. The toddler was well until a few hours before and, from the parents’ story, things are going downhill fast. If you get the diagnosis wrong, the child could be dead within hours.
The safest assumption is that meningitis-causing bacteria are coursing though the patient’s bloodstream (septicaemia) and infecting the membranes (meninges) around the brain. The imperative is to get intravenous antibiotics into the child as soon as possible.
Several types of bacteria can cause meningitis but one of the most common is meningococcus. Meningococcal subtypes are identified by single letters, such as A, B, C and Y.
What has been concerning health authorities is the increase in cases of Meningococcus W or MenW. In Britain eight years ago MenW represented only 1% of meningococcal disease; today it’s 25% and growing. In Australia the number of cases, while small, is also growing. Such is the concern that two states (Western Australia and New South Wales) have started offering immunisation to teenagers.