Bacterial Meningitis in Childhood Can Devastate the Lives of Survivors

By   |  January 22, 2024

By Ernie Mundell HealthDay Reporter  |  Copyright © 2024 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

MONDAY, Jan. 22, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Infection in childhood with bacterial meningitis leaves one-third of survivors with long-term neurological damage, often severe, a new study shows.

The disease is rare and easily treated with antibiotics. However, as Swedish researchers point out, antibiotics take time to penetrate the brain's protective barrier. 

That leaves time for the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium, which typically causes meningitis, to wreak havoc on nerve cells.

Comparing the 23-year outcomes of 3,500 people who battled bacterial meningitis in childhood to those of 32,000 people from the general population, the researchers found much higher rates of long-term neurological issues among survivors of the disease.

These included serious conditions such as cognitive impairment, seizures, visual or hearing impairment, motor impairment, behavioral disorders or structural damage to the head.

“This shows that even if the bacterial infection is cured, many people suffer from neurological impairment afterwards,” said study co-author Federico Iovino. He's associate professor in medical microbiology at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. 

Compared to people who hadn't had bacterial meningitis, survivors faced 26 times the odds for structural damage to the head, an eight-fold higher risk for impaired hearing, and five times the odds for motor impairments, the research showed.

The long-term damage stemming from bacterial meningitis can be profound.

"When children are affected, the whole family is affected," Iovino explained in an institute news release. "If a three-year-old child has impaired cognition, a motor disability, impaired or lost vision or hearing, it has a major impact. These are lifelong disabilities that become a major burden for both the individual and society, as those affected need health care support for the rest of their lives."

His team is involved in research to help prevent these tragedies.

“We are trying to develop treatments that can protect neurons in the brain during the window of a few days it takes for antibiotics to take full effect," Iovino explained. "We now have very promising data from human neurons and are just entering a preclinical phase with animal models. Eventually, we hope to present this in the clinic within the next few years."

The study was funded by drug company Merck and published Jan. 19 in JAMA Network Open.

More information

Find out more about bacterial meningitis and vaccines that can prevent it, at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

SOURCE: Karolinska Institute, news release, Jan. 19, 2024