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I recently read about a lot of cases in which a baby contracted meningitis and had to be hospitalised. Many of these cases are severe and heartbreaking. What is meningitis?

Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes called meninges that envelop or encase your brain and spinal cord. Most cases of meningitis are caused by a virus, but they can sometimes be caused by a bacteria or fungus.

The bacterial cases are typically more severe and dangerous. They can be life-threatening and can lead to very serious disabilities, such as deafness or brain damage. They can also lead to septicaemia, or blood infection.

The viral cases are more common and can be relatively mild. Sometimes, people mistake it for the flu. They usually resolve by themselves.

I read that my baby can contract meningitis if someone kisses her. How is this possible? I am now afraid to let anyone kiss my baby.

It is wise not to let anyone kiss your baby. If someone near your baby coughs or sneezes, the virus can be transmitted through the air. You yourself can spread viruses to your baby if you don’t, for example, maintain good hygiene, such as washing your hands after gardening or going to the toilet.

As for bacterial meningitis, your baby can contract the bacteria if someone sneezes or coughs very near to her. The type of bacteria that causes bacterial meningitis doesn’t live long outside a human body, so an infected person will have to be very close to your baby to infect him or her.

Such examples include people who kiss or touch your baby, or share eating utensils (spoons, plates) with your baby. Sometimes, someone in the same house is infected, and your baby gets infected as well.

It’s so difficult to tell if my baby is ill! How can I tell if my baby has meningitis?

It’s difficult to tell if babies are ill by any disease! If your baby does any of the following, go to a paediatrician or hospital immediately:

• Poor feeding or refusing to feed (either breast or bottle)
• Unusual, shrill crying or moaning
• Grunting or rapid breathing
• Fretful or irritable behaviour when touched
• Vomiting
• Pale or blotchy skin
• Floppy, listless or unresponsive
• Drowsy or difficult to wake
• Having a fever, but with cold hands or feet
• Having a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot at the top of your baby’s head before it fuses to become bone)
• Spots or a rash. This is especially common with bacterial meningitis that has led to blood poisoning. The rash here appears as a cluster of tiny spots (pinpricks), which then progresses to a purple bruise-like rash.

You can use a glass test to check for a meningitis rash. Press the side of a drinking glass to the spots on your baby. Meningitis rashes don’t fade upon pressure.

Note that other diseases, such as the flu, can also present with some or all of these symptoms, and it is always important to take your baby to the hospital if you are unsure of anything.

I heard that the doctor might do a lumbar puncture test on my baby’s spinal cord to diagnose meningitis. Help! I don’t want to do this to happen. My grandmother said it is dangerous.

A lumbar puncture merely involves the doctor inserting a hollow needle into your baby’s spine to remove a sample of fluid from the spinal cord. Doctors need to test this cerebrospinal fluid for bacteria or viruses in order to make a diagnosis of meningitis, and possibly, the infecting organism.

This is important and necessary to give the right treatment to the baby. Lumbar punctures have been done for thousands and thousands of babies with no ill effects afterward. Contrast this to not getting the right treatment for your baby.

What is the treatment for meningitis in a baby, and is there any vaccine to prevent it?

For viral meningitis, most of the time, your baby just needs rest and supportive treatment. If the meningitis spreads to involve the brain, then antivirals can be given. However, bacterial meningitis requires immediate antibiotics.

It can take anything from a week to months before your baby will recover. Your baby has to be treated immediately to prevent any brain damage.

Your baby is vaccinated against some forms of bacteria that can cause meningitis, such as Haemophilus influenza Type B (HiB) at two months, three months and four months of age. The pneumococcal vaccine is also being offered, as is meningitis B and C vaccine.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health, computers and entertainment. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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