Meningitis in babies - new warnings from latest research

A new research study into the characteristics of bacterial meningitis in babies below the age of three months has identified potentially dangerous flaws in the way meningitis is currently diagnosed.  

The Meningitis Research Foundation, which funded the St George’s Hospital research team study, Clinical Characteristics and Risk Factors for Poor Outcome in Infants Less Than 90 Days of Age with Bacterial Meningitis in the United Kingdom and Ireland, has warned that doctors relying on the classic sign of fever to trigger further medical investigation may be missing the opportunity to diagnose meningitis in this exceptionally high risk age group.

Whilst babies under the age of three months are 70 times more likely to contract bacterial meningitis than adults, the study found that only 54% of the 263 meningitis babies studied were reported to have a temperature above 38°C. Fever was more commonly reported in older babies, whereas, in the  younger age group, the common but less specific symptoms, such as poor feeding, lethargy and irritability could more commonly be mistaken for mild illness.

Fever is not the only sign of meningitis but is regarded as a key feature. The NICE Guideline: Meningitis (bacterial) and meningococcal septicaemia in under 16s: recognition, diagnosis and management (at paragraph 1.1.1) warns that fever is ‘not always present, particularly in neonates’. Newborn babies (also known as neonates) are the highest risk age group for meningitis.

The study found that other specific features of meningitis, such as bulging fontanelle (the area on top of the head where the baby’s skull bones have not yet fused), seizures, coma and neck stiffness were far less common in infants under three months. Seizures were reported in 28%, bulging fontanelle in 22%, coma in 6%, and neck stiffness in only 3%.

The incidence of bacterial meningitis in babies hasn’t changed since the 1980s. Early diagnosis and rapid treatment remain the key to avoiding the devastating consequences of this deadly disease.

Fever can no longer be relied upon as a reliable main symptom of meningitis in babies under three months old. To assist in recognition and diagnosis, The Meningitis Research Foundation have now updated their symptoms information for parents. The charity has also created a teaching package for clinicians, reflecting the findings of the recent research.

As specialists in clinical negligence claims of the utmost severity, Boyes Turner’s meningitis experts have acted for many children and adults who have suffered permanent brain damage, severe disability and amputation arising from delayed diagnosis and treatment of meningitis.

We support the efforts of charities such as the Meningitis Research Foundation and Meningitis Now and the breakthroughs in awareness and positive change that arise from studies such as this. We now look forward to seeing this awareness reflected in changes to guidelines and clinical practice in the hope that fewer lives will be affected by this devastating disease.

If you are caring for a child with serious disability arising from negligent medical care of meningitis please contact us on 0118 952 7219 or email us on mednegclaims@boyesturner.com.

 

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