The death of an Eaglecrest High School teacher over the weekend from symptoms consistent with bacterial meningitis – which prompted the school to cancel evening activities Tuesday and classes Wednesday to conduct contact tracing – had us asking:
What is bacterial meningitis? And what should people know about the infection?
Denver7 took these questions and more to UCHealth Senior Medical Director of Infection Prevention Dr. Michelle Barron and other health sources to learn more about bacterial meningitis.
What is bacterial meningitis and how does one get it?
It’s an infection of the meninges, which are the layers of membrane that line the brain (the pia mater, the arachnoid and the dura mater, as defined by the Mayo Clinic). It happens when bacteria enter through the nose or airways, into the bloodstream and into the brain, Barron said. She said the brain then becomes inflamed, which puts pressure on the brain.
Bacterial meningitis is a serious illness that results from bacterial meningococcal disease. According to Colorado State University, bacterial meningitis “usually has a more sudden onset and is a more severe illness than viral meningitis.”
How common is bacterial meningitis?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the incidence of meningococcal disease, a broader term for an infection that includes bacterial meningitis. In 2020, the CDC reported 0.07 cases per 100,000 people in the United States. The incidence rate has been on a steady decline since 2001. It peaked at about 1.5 cases per 100,000 people back in the early 1980s.
College students are considered to be at higher risk for the disease because they live in close proximities to each other, Barron said.
The CDC recommends all people ages 11-12 should receive a meningococcal conjugate, or MenACWY, vaccine with a booster shot at age 16. Some teens should also receive a serogroup B meningococcal, or MenB, vaccine. You can learn more about the CDC’s meningococcal vaccination recommendations here.
“This is a vaccine-preventable disease,” Barron said.
A report published by Pfizer last fall cited CDC data that states more than 86% of people between 13 and 17 years had received at least one dose of the MenACWY vaccine, and 50% had gotten two doses.
What are the symptoms?
Dr. Barron said the primary symptoms are fever, severe headache and neck stiffness.
“Probably the most prominent feature is the next step, where if you turned your head side to side [you] wouldn't be able to do that – it would be very painful,” Barron said.
CSU also notes symptoms like loss of appetite, drowsiness, nausea, confusion and difficulty walking. Symptoms typically appear within 3-4 days of exposure, the university says.
How contagious is bacterial meningitis?
Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease, is very contagious, Barron said. However, she said infection requires close contact.
“Within three feet, and then certainly in the healthcare arena, you worry about if you had exposure to [someone’s] spit, or to droplets, or if they're coughing,” she said.
What do I do if exposed to bacterial meningitis?
According to the Mayo Clinic, bacterial meningitis should be treated immediately with intravenous antibiotics, and sometimes corticosteroids.
In addition, Dr. Barron says the most important thing to do is to get in touch with the health department to chart a path forward.
“Make sure they ask the right questions and figure it out,” she said.
It’s worth noting, viral meningitis is different from bacterial meningitis and those cases typically resolve themselves in a matter of weeks with rest and fluid, according to the Mayo Clinic.