Children who have been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis are at 26 times higher risk of structural head injuries, a new study finds.
The study led by the researchers Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and published in the JAMA Network Open is the first one to identify the long-term health burden of bacterial meningitis.
Bacterial meningitis is a rare but severe infection that primarily affects children and can be fatal. The condition is treated with antibiotics, which have difficulty penetrating the blood-brain barrier. As it may take a few days for the drugs to start working, nerve cells can be damaged during this period and result in various permanent neurological damage.
The new study's authors used data from the Swedish quality register on bacterial meningitis between 1987 and 2021. They compared 3,623 people who contracted bacterial meningitis before age 18 with 32,607 matched controls from the general population. The average follow-up time is over 23 years.
Nearly one-third (29.0%) of those diagnosed with bacterial meningitis had at least one neurological impairment compared to one in ten among controls.
Individuals with a history of bacterial meningitis were at a 26 times higher risk of structural head injuries, almost eight times risk of hearing impairment, and nearly five times higher risk of motor impairment.
The bacterial meningitis diagnosis was also linked to an increased risk for cognitive impairment, seizures, behavioral disorders, and visual impairment.
"This shows that even if the bacterial infection is cured, many people suffer from neurological impairment afterwards," Federico Iovino, an associate professor in Medical Microbiology at the Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet, said in a statement.
The risk of disabilities was the highest during the first years after a diagnosis and remained increased during the period starting over five years after diagnosis.
The researchers are now working to develop treatments that can protect neurons in the brain until antibiotics take full effect.
The symptoms of meningitis
In the United States, several types of bacteria, including Streptococcus pneumoniae and Escherichia coli, can cause meningitis. The bacteria can spread from one person to another, while some spread through food.
In the Swedish study, most bacterial meningitis infections were caused by Haemophilus influenzae and S. pneumoniae.
Bacterial meningitis symptoms include sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck. The symptoms can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, eye sensitivity to light, and confusion.
It may be difficult to notice the classic symptoms in newborns and babies. Instead, they may be showing one of the following signs:
- Being slow or inactive
- Being irritable
- Feeding poorly
- Having the "soft spot" on the head
- Abnormal reflexes
If you think your baby or child has any of these symptoms, call the doctor right away, as the infection may cause lifelong health consequences.
- JAMA Network Open. Increased risk of long-term disabilities following childhood bacterial meningitis in Sweden.
- Karolinska Institutet. Bacterial meningitis damages one in three children for life.
- CDC. Bacterial meningitis.