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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Meningitis Rate Is Dropping in U.S.

CDC Researchers Say Pneumococcal Vaccine Is Helping to Lower Meningitis Rate
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 25, 2011 -- Cases of bacterial meningitis continue to decline in the U.S., with incidence falling by almost a third over the last decade, the CDC says.

The latest drop is being attributed in part to the introduction of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, which protects children from a leading cause of bacterial meningitis, Streptococcus pneumoniae.

It follows an even bigger decline in cases over the previous decade, which saw the introduction of a vaccine targeting Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib). Between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, bacterial meningitis cases in the U.S. dropped by 55%.

The CDC report appears in tomorrow's New England Journal of Medicine.

"The good news is that this very serious infection is now a lot less common than it was," CDC chief of bacterial and respiratory diseases Cynthia Whitney, MD, MPH, tells WebMD.

"But we want people to know that this disease does still occur. There are about 4,000 cases of bacterial meningitis each year in the U.S., so physicians still need to be aware of the signs and treat patients quickly and aggressively."

Meningitis Can Be Fatal Quickly

While there has been great progress in preventing bacterial meningitis, far less progress has been made in treating the disease once people get it, Whitney says.

If not treated quickly, bacterial meningitis can sometimes progress from first symptoms to death in less than a day.

In April, a 21-year-old college student in New Hampshire with a rare form of bacterial meningitis died just 12 hours after seeking medical treatment for a severe headache and rash, according to news reports.

And last spring, two students at an elementary school in Oologah, Okla., died and four others were hospitalized with bacterial meningitis within days of first complaining of symptoms.

High fever, headache, and neck stiffness are the most common symptoms of bacterial meningitis in adults and children over the age of 2.

"When people get bacterial meningitis, it still tends to be very serious," Whitney says.

Biggest Drop Occurred in Babies

CDC researchers analyzed bacterial meningitis incidence data between 1998 and 2007, concluding that about 4,100 cases and 500 deaths occurred annually between 2003 and 2007.

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