Infant Meningitis can be a terrifying diagnosis for any parent, especially so the parents of a newborn.
The result of an inflammation of the membranes that protect the baby’s brain and spinal cord, meningitis is dangerous and potentially deadly.
While the disorder impacts only about 300 to 400 of every 100,000 births, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it can be serious for a newborn because the symptoms associated with meningitis may not be immediately evident after birth.
Causes of Meningitis
Infant meningitis can develop two types of meningitis.
Viral meningitis is caused by exposure to mumps, herpes simplex, varicella-zoster (the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles), measles, influenza or West Nile virus, and is considered less serious than bacterial meningitis.
Bacterial meningitis is caused by exposure to a bacterial infection, especially so group B beta-hemolytic streptococcus, known as group B strep. According to the CDC, 10 to 30 percent of pregnant women are carriers of group B strep, which can be passed on to a baby at or near the time of delivery.
Other infections that can cause bacterial meningitis include E. coli, and listeria, both food-borne illnesses.
E. coli is usually caused by exposure to contaminated fruits and vegetables or undercooked meat. Listeria is caused by contaminated foods including lunch meat, soft cheese, and hot dogs. Both illnesses can be passed through the birth canal during pregnancy, but listeria is less common than E-coli.
A baby can also develop meningitis if the mother has the infection since it will likely pass through the placenta, which connects the bloodstreams of both mother and baby. If possible, a baby who develops meningitis in this way may be delivered early in order to be treated for the infection before serious problems occur.
Prevention of Meningitis
Prevention of meningitis is possible in most cases with proper prenatal and postnatal care. Mothers should avoid foods that could be contaminated by listeria or E. coli while pregnant, and doctors should test for group B strep during the last weeks of pregnancy, so antibiotics can be given to the mother prior to giving birth and to the baby after birth.
Pregnant women with the herpes virus may be advised to have a cesarean section to avoid infecting the baby during the delivery process.
Symptoms of Meningitis
Unfortunately, the signs of meningitis can go unnoticed in infants because many of them are similar to those associated with a cold or flu.
Babies may have a fever, they may be irritable and they may have difficulty feeding or vomiting.
There are symptoms more in line with meningitis, however, including a tell-tale rash, cold hands and feet and jerking muscles. Other symptoms include lethargy, stiffness of the neck or swelling of the fontanelle, a response to the inflammation of brain tissue.
The potential problems associated with meningitis are extensive, and include:
- Seizures. Between 20 to 25 percent of infants diagnosed with meningitis develop seizures due to the pressure that develops in the brain.
- Emotional instability. Moodiness, depression, nightmares, anxiety and aggression are all associated with meningitis.
- Hearing loss. Loss of hearing is the most common complication associated with meningitis, and can range from mild hearing loss to total deafness.
- Vision problems. Because meningitis impacts the nerves of the brain, it can sometimes damage the optic nerve, resulting in either a partial or total loss of vision. Balance issues, problems with depth perception and difficulty processing visual cues are also potential problems.
- Ataxia or cerebral palsy. Children with meningitis may develop difficulty with motor skills because the ability of the brain to communicate with the body has been compromised. Children may have difficulty walking, picking up toys or holding a pencil to write.
- Speech problems. Meningitis can impact a child’s ability to produce or understand speech and may also have difficulties with reading and writing skills.
- Learning disabilities. Children with meningitis often experience brain damage that can cause cognitive problems.
- Memory difficulties. Children who had meningitis may later have difficulty with their short-term memories, making education a challenge. Long-term memory can also be a problem, with important milestones, childhood experiences or vacations being wiped out.
- Sepsis. Meningitis caused by an infection can lead to sepsis, which occurs when the infection spreads throughout the body. Sepsis is also potentially deadly, and can lead to organ failure.
- Death. Between five and twenty-five percent of children who develop meningitis die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What Should I Do If My Child Developed Meningitis at Birth?
If your child developed meningitis as a result of a strep, E. coli or listeria infection, it’s important to contact to an experienced birth injury attorney to discuss your case.
If you were not tested for group B strep (the CDC recommends testing for all pregnant women at 35 to 37 weeks) or were not given antibiotics during childbirth if you were tested, you may have a strong case for medical negligence.
An experienced infant meningitis attorney can help you determine whether or not to pursue litigation, especially if you have extensive medical bills due to your child’s illness.