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Saving Kids From Meningococcal Disease

New Early Warning Signs Noted by British Researchers
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 10, 2006 -- Kids with meningococcal disease may be saved by swift diagnosis and treatment, and new early warning signs could help.

Meningococcal disease is a life-threatening bacterial infection that can spread throughout the bloodstream and can also cause meningitis (infection of the lining and fluid of the brain and spinal cord).

Meningococcal disease is rare in the U.S. but is more common in developing countries, British researchers write in The Lancet.

The scientists included Matthew Thompson, MBChB, of the primary health department at England's University of Oxford.

The CDC recommends vaccinating adolescents to cut risk of meningitisvaccinating adolescents to cut risk of meningitis. Meningococcal disease can spread in close quarters (such as a college dorm).

New Early Warning Signs

The researchers report these possible early warning signs of meningococcal disease:

  • Leg pain
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Abnormal skin color

Those symptoms may or may not show meningococcal disease; they could stem from other, much less serious illnesses.

Still, those signs were commonly seen in children and teens who had had meningococcal disease before the disease's classic signs (rash, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, and impaired consciousness) appeared, write Thompson and colleagues.

Parents Speak From Experience

Thompson's study included information from medical records and completed questionnaires from parents of 448 British children who had been admitted to the hospital for meningococcal disease from 1997 to 1999.

The children ranged in age from 0-16 years; 103 had died of meningococcal disease. Most of the children developed blood infection (66%), 22% had meningitis, 12% had both.

Nearly six months after their children's illness, the parents completed surveys or were interviewed by the researchers. Thompson's team wanted to know what symptoms the kids had shown and when those symptoms had emerged.

The researchers also checked the children's medical records. In most cases, lab tests had been done that showed that the children had had meningococcal disease.Classic Signs Came Later

Most children started off with very common symptoms that aren't unique to meningococcal disease.

The kids sickened quickly over the next 24 hours. The time line was as follows:

  • First four to six hours: Symptoms included fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, loss of appetite, sore throat, and irritability.

  • Within the first 12 hours: New symptoms start (leg pain, cold hands and feet, and abnormal skin color).

  • Between 12-15 hours: Classic signs of meningococcal disease start (rash, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, and impaired consciousness).

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