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Meningitis is a highly feared disease that can strike at any time and if it is not treated quickly and efficiently can cause death within hours. In my essay I will discuss how meningitis attacks the human body, the different types of Meningitis, the symptoms that either case can exhibit as well as the potential treatments and preventative measures that could be employed to prevent future infection.
Meningitis, a quick and deadly killer if not caught quickly, can exhibit the symptoms of a common cold. The two forms of Meningitis, bacterial and viral, exhibit similar symptoms (although viral exhibits less severe symptoms than bacterial); stiff neck, sensitivity to light and headache are the three most common characteristics of meningitis. Another predominant symptom is the sudden appearance of a rash; the rash does not disappear when pressure is applied. A rudimentary test is to use a glass and press it against the rash, if it remains then this is usually a strong indication of meningitis. Other common symptoms of Meningitis include patient weakness in supporting their own weight, fever, vomiting and diarrhoea, confusion and drowsiness. Unfortunately all the few symptoms could all be easily mistaken for a nasty case of flu, early treatment is essential to ensure the patient makes a full recovery.
Viral meningitis presents itself in a similar way to bacterial meningitis although not as serious as the bacterial form. The Viral form can be caused by a variety of different viruses, although the most common is through gastro-viral infection (caused by Enteroviruses located in the intestinal tract). In warmer climates, mosquitoes can also aid in the transfer of Viruses that cause the Viral form. Although the virus cannot be treated directly with antibiotics, the best form of treatment for this case is for the patient to rest for a couple of weeks while their body develops its own immunity.
Bacterial meningitis is far more deadly than its viral counterpart and could cause death within hours if the infection is not caught quickly. The infection is caused by three main types of bacteria; Haemophilus influenzae type b, Neisseria meningitidis, and Streptococcus pneumonia. The bacteria can be found across the globe and exists harmlessly within the mouth and nose of human beings, however, the bacteria can breach the body's immune system and then travel through the body to the fluid surrounding the brain and within the spinal cord. As the bacteria divides and multiplies the meninges, the name given to the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, become swollen and inflamed and hence producing the classic symptoms of meningitis. As soon as a case of bacterial meningitis arises, the patient needs to be put into isolation as soon as possible to prevent bacterial infection spreading. In regards to treatment of this form of meningitis, it is crucial that the doctor treating the patient knows which type of bacteria is causing the infection. This is done by performing a lumbar puncture; this is when a needle is inserted into the spinal cord of the patient and CSF (Cerebral spinal fluid) is withdrawn for analysis. This then allows the doctor to identify and treat the bacteria causing the infection. This type of meningitis can easily be treated with antibiotics after the infection causing bacteria has been identified, however, because of the rapid onset of the bacterial form, doctors in A&E departments usually give the patient a 'cocktail' of antibiotics that will treat the most common bacterial forms. If the case of meningitis is particularly serious, then measures are taken to prevent the patient from suffering seizures as well as giving the patient anti inflammatory drugs to try and reduce the inflammation. If the case is particularly severe then the above treatment is followed by inserting a small tube directly into the meninges to try and relieve the pressure caused by their inflammation. If bacterial meningitis is not treated within the first few hours of the appearance of symptoms then this can lead to a number of after effects which can include; loss of sight and/or hearing, severe brain damage, epilepsy, memory loss, learning difficulties and behavioural problems (Resulting disorders depend on the part of the brain that is damaged). Certain age groups with weakened or impaired immune systems are more susceptible to either form compared to healthy adults. Examples of these include children under 5, young adults and the elderly.
Meningitis can be prevented in a number of ways; Vaccination is usually the most common form of defence against both forms of the disease. Starting with vaccination against the bacteria HIB (Haemophilus influenzae type b), this bacteria resides within the body harmlessly until an opportunity occurs for the bacteria to cause problems i.e. when the body is weak after 'fighting off' a viral infection or if the patient already has a weakened immune system. Other vaccinations include; the MMR vaccine which provides protection against mumps (Infection resulting in the swelling of the salivary glands) which in turn can cause swelling within the brain. Another vaccine that aids in meningitis prevention includes the meningitis C vaccination. This vaccination involves 'provoking' the immune system to fight against a particular bacterium (Neisseria meningitides in this case) by subjecting the injectee to a minute dose of the bacterium that is known to cause meningitis. This then stimulates the body to produce anti-bodies to fight future infection. The last common vaccination used to treat meningitis is the pneumococcal vaccine; this vaccine works in a similar fashion to the meningitis C vaccine by subjecting the patient to an 'inactivated' strain of the bacteria, Streptococcus pneumonia, to help the body develop immunity. This last bacterium is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis and can also cause a variety of diseases such as community-acquired pneumonia etc which could lead to complications during treatment or arise while the patient is suffering from a particular disease caused by the bacteria. The above vaccinations are usually given to children in various stages of their development as well as to adults with weakened immune systems (such as patients who suffer from sickle cell anaemia or from HIV) and the elderly. Regular 'top ups' of the various vaccines are required, every 3 to 5 years, to ensure the patient has a strong immunity against the meningitis causing bacterium.
Viral meningitis can be avoided by practising standard anti-viral hygiene procedures. People can become a carrier of the disease and not exhibit outwards signs of infection. Preventable measures that reduce or kill the viruses that cause meningitis are usually the best form of defence such as decontaminating surfaces that are commonly used within the home or work place (i.e. door handles and banister rails) as well as the use of antibacterial hand gels and wipes. Other methods include minimising human to human contact (e.g. kissing, sharing of items were saliva transfer can occur such as lipstick etc), 'Catching' the viruses in tissues after sneezing and coughing and then disposing of them helps reduce the potential infection from person-to-person contact. Inhabitants of warmer climates can take measures to protect themselves against mosquito viral transmission by using insect repellent.
To conclude I believe that meningitis could be a major problem globally for countries that cannot afford to vaccinate immunodeficient sectors of the population (aka young children, suffers of immunity weakening illness' such as HIV etc and the elderly) against the more deadly bacterial forms of the disease. Although the viral form may not be as deadly as the bacterial form; in a poor country with poor sanitation, poor health care and heavily populated areas, the likely hood of infection is greatly increased compared to western countries. However, a recurrent theme though out my research suggests that bacterial meningitis is deadly if not caught within a particular time frame regardless of the country of origin, proving once and for all that meningitis will always be a global issue.