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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Michigan Meningitis Deaths Not Signs of Epidemic


"You can't get meningitis by just being in the same room with an infected person," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner tells WebMD. "Why some people become ill from the bacteria is not fully understood. Some people carry this bacteria and never develop illness."

One of the major preventive actions to take is the simplest: Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and warm water, Skinner says. If you do this, and avoid drinking after others and sharing their eating utensils, you reduce your chances of being exposed to the organisms that can cause meningitis.

Meningitis, or the inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, is caused by either viruses or bacteria, and bacterially caused infections are typically more severe. The scientific term for pneumococcal bacteria, which was involved in the Michigan deaths, is Streptococcal pneumoniae. This organism more often causes ear and sinus infections than meningitis. Other bacterial causes of meningitis include Haemophilus influenzae type B and Neisseria meningitidis.

According to information published on the CDC's web site, the symptoms to watch for in people 2 years old or more, are a high fever (101.5° F. or more), a headache, and a stiff neck. Patients also may be nauseated or vomit, they may be sensitive to bright lights, or they may be confused and sleepy. Anyone who has such symptoms should be seen promptly by a physician. Infected infants may be slow, inactive, or irritable, or they may vomit or show little interest in eating.

There are some vaccines available. In February 2000, a vaccine called Prevnar hit the market for S. pneumoniae, the bacteria that caused the Michigan deaths. It is recommended for children with chronic medical conditions. There is another vaccine available for adults.

In addition, the vaccine against Haemophilus influenzae type B (HiB) is recommended for children under 2 years old. A vaccine also is available against four strains of N. meningitidis, which is recommended before travel to certain countries, and some experts recommend it for college freshman living in dormitories.

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