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Dartmouth News
>  News Releases >   2001 >   March

Fact sheet on pneumococcal meningitis

Posted 03/06/01

Dartmouth College Health Service
Dick Hall's House
7 Rope Ferry Road
Hanover, NH 03755
603-650-1422

This fact sheet is intended to answer questions members of the community have asked about middle ear infections and about meningitis, infections that have hospitalized a member of our faculty, Patricia Anderson. Professor Anderson is in the Intensive Care unit in serious condition but we hope that she will make a full recovery.

What are middle ear infections and meningitis?

Middle ear infections are common bacterial infections in both children and adults. Many cases are self limited and some cases are due to bacteria that require antibiotic treatment. Meningitis is a disease that causes inflammation of the meninges, which are the lining or membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord and often requires treatment with antibiotics.

Is there more than one type of meningitis?

Yes. There are two basic types, viral (caused by a virus) and bacterial (caused by a bacterium.) There are also different strains of both viral and bacterial meningitis and each of these strains is different, are spread in different ways and lead to slightly different illnesses.

Viral Meningitis:

There are several viruses that can cause VM. These are relatively mild cases of meningitis and usually the patient recovers from the illness completely

Bacterial Meningitis:

Most cases of bacterial meningitis are caused by one of the following bacteria:
Haemophilus influenzae
Streptococcus pneumoniae (Pneumococcus)
Neisseria meningitidis (Meningococcus)

All of these types of bacterial meningitis require antibiotic treatment. Only the last form of bacterial meningitis (meningococcal) is commonly recognized to be contagious and occurs in epidemics.

Does Professor Anderson have the contagious type of meningitis?

No. Professor Anderson has a middle ear infection (otitis media) due to Streptococcus pneumoniae that has spread to the spinal fluid and caused infection in the lining of the brain (Pneumococcal meningitis).

How do people get middle ear infections and meningitis from Streptococcus pneumoniae?

These infections are caused when Streptococcus pneumoniae that often resides in the throat spreads to the middle ear, sinuses or lungs. On rare occasions, they can invade the meninges, leading to meningitis. These infections are more common in the winter months.

The causative organism is widespread and is present in the throats of 5 — 10% of healthy adults and 20 — 40% of children at any given time. Most of the time these organisms do not cause infection but a small proportion of otherwise healthy people are not able to develop effective immunity to the organisms and may develop one of the infections mentioned above.

Is there a way to protect myself or my family from pneumococcal infection?

There is a vaccine that is recommended for people who are prone to serious forms of pneumococcal infection. The pneumococcal vaccine is currently recommended for individuals with chronic pulmonary disease, advanced cardiovascular disease, diabetes, alcoholism, cirrhosis, chronic renal insufficiency, and all individuals above age 65. The vaccine is not recommended for general use in healthy individuals (or for persons who are exposed to someone ill with Streptococcus pneumoniae since we are all exposed to this bacteria every day).

What are the symptoms of Pneumococcal infection?

The usual pneumococcal infection starts with an ear infection, sinus infection or lung infection (pneumonia) and, if untreated with antibiotics, these can very rarely lead to pneumococcal meningitis.

When pneumococcal meningitis develops, symptoms include:

severe headache, high fever, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights, drowsiness, disorientation.

Is it unusual to have more than one case of pneumococcal infection in a short period of time?

No. During the winter season pneumococcal infections, especially pneumonia, are common and it is not unusual for several people to be in the hospital at the same time with infections due to this organism.

Are students, faculty, staff or members of the community at increased risk because of the recent cases of meningitis?

No. There is no increased risk.

If you have additional questions or concerns, please feel free to call the College Health Service and ask for Dr. John Turco at 603-650-1422.

Additional contacts:
Anthony Venti, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center Public Affairs, 603-650-1422
Laurel Stavis, Dartmouth College Public Affairs, 603-646-3661

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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