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Q: Is my child at risk for meningitis?

A: Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord and is usually caused by a viral or bacteria infection. Viral meningitis is usually, but not always, less severe and clears up on its own without treatment. Bacterial meningitis requires treatment with antibiotics and can cause serious health problems and sometimes even result in disability or death.

Since the germs that cause bacterial meningitis can spread through such activities as coughing or sneezing, unimmunized children in a daycare setting or young adults living in college or military dorms are especially vulnerable. Children with underlying health conditions may also be at a higher risk of infection. These conditions include sickle cell disease, abnormal spleen function, HIV infection, some immunodeficiency syndromes and children who are not breastfed.

The great news for parents is that you can greatly reduce your child's risk for meningitis by vaccinating your children. The vaccines are safe and highly effective. Children routinely receive the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) and pneumococcal vaccinations as a part of their well baby exams. These vaccinations are typically given to infants at two, four, six and 12 to 18 months of age. Since the Hib vaccination was introduced in 1988, the incidence of serious infection has decreased by 99 percent. There has also been a dramatic decrease in life-threatening pneumococcal infections since the pneumococcal vaccine was introduced in 2000.

Older children and young adults should receive a vaccination later in life to protect against meningococcal meningitis. This vaccination is usually administered around age 11, although children at high risk of meningococcal infection should be vaccinated at two years of age.

University of Missouri Health Care pediatricians encourage parents to make sure that their children are fully immunized against these serious, life-threatening infections. The CDC child, adolescent, and adult immunization schedules are available online at http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/default.htm.

Finally, if your child displays symptoms of meningitis, such as fever and chills, nausea and vomiting, severe headaches or a stiff neck, call your physician immediately. Early treatment is critical to a good outcome.

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To submit a question for Dr. Fete, please e-mail Dawn Thurnau.

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