Fertility and pregnancy * Babies and children

Babies at risk of meningitis being missed

newborns most at risk from meningitis Half of cases could be prevented

Hospitals are failing to identify newborn babies most at risk of meningitis, claims a national charity. This is despite long-standing government guidelines already in place on how to do this.

According to the Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF), babies run the highest risk of meningitis. For babies under the age of 12 months, the risk is 38 times higher than that for older children and adults.

Newborns are particularly vulnerable to meningitis caused by Group B Streptococcus (GBS) bacteria, which is carried by up to 30% of adults. Although usually harmless, it can be passed from mother to baby during labour resulting in septicaemia (blood poisoning), meningitis and even death.

Currently it is recommended that "at-risk" mothers be given antibiotics during labour, but the results of a study of 202 of the 222 UK neonatal units showed that this varies considerably across the UK. Up to half of all current cases of GBS in newborns could be avoided if the guidelines were followed.

Christopher Head, Chief Executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation, said: "MRF is very concerned by the lack of awareness of GBS infection and the potential inconsistencies in the treatment of the disease. Therefore we are launching a new research project to improve recognition and treatment of meningitis in the youngest babies, in whom the outcome is so devastating."

Dr. Paul Heath from St Georges University of London, who will be leading the study added: "The early treatment of meningitis in babies appears to vary widely across the UK. We hope to develop best practice guidelines that will make a real difference."

Babies at higher risk of GBS infection:

  • If the mother's waters have gone more than 18 hours before delivery
  • If the mother has a high temperature in labour
  • If the baby is born before 37 weeks
  • If a vaginal swab or urine sample from the mother has been positive for GBS during pregnancy
  • If the mother has previously had a baby who developed GBS

Symptoms of meningitis:

  • severe headache - unusual in young children
  • stiff neck
  • dislike of bright lights
  • fever/vomiting
  • drowsy/ less responsive/vacant
  • rash
  • seizures

Additional symptoms in babies

  • Tense or bulging fontanelle (soft spot)
  • Blotchy skin
  • Becoming pale or turning blue
  • Refusing to feed
  • Irritable when picked up, with a high pitched or moaning cry
  • Stiff body with jerky movements
  • Or floppy and lifeless

More information

Meningitis Awareness in Babies week starts on Monday 21st September. For more information about this and meningitis, see www.meningitis.org. To find out more about GBS, visit the Group B Strep Support web site.

This article was published on Thu 17 September 2009

Image © Vivid Pixels - Fotolia.com

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