Meningitis - Symptoms

The classic symptoms of meningitis include fever, headache, vomiting, sensitivity to light, irritability, severe fatigue, stiff neck, and a reddish-purple rash on the skin. If the infection is not treated quickly, more serious symptoms develop, including seizures, confusion, and coma.

Before the discovery of antibiotics, meningitis was a dreaded diseases. There was no way to stop its progress. Those who survived an attack of the disease were likely to be left blind, deaf, or mentally retarded. The disease was also feared because of the ease with which it spread. During World War I (1914–18), for example, meningitis often swept through groups of soldiers who lived and fought together. The only way to stop its spread was to isolate infected soldiers from others who were still healthy.

Important breakthroughs in the treatment of meningitis came as the result of the work of Dr. Sara Elizabeth Branham (1888–1962). Dr. Branham worked for many years at the National Institutes of Health. Initially, she was interested primarily in food poisoning caused by bacteria. But the tragedies of World War I encouraged her to focus on ways of treating meningitis.

When she began her research, the only treatment available for meningitis was antiserum obtained from horses. Horse antiserum is a chemical produced in horses when they have been exposed to meningitis bacteria. As horse antiserum lost its effectiveness, Dr. Branham developed another form of antiserum, produced in rabbits.

Finally, in 1937, Dr. Branham decided to try the newly discovered sulfonamide drugs on meningitis. The sulfonamides were the first antibiotics to be widely used. Dr. Branham found that they could be used effectively against the bacteria that cause meningitis. Largely as a result of her research, meningitis was kept under control during World War II (1939–45).

These symptoms may not be present in very young babies or the elderly. The immune system of babies is usually not developed enough to fight off an infection of the meninges. So symptoms that accompany an immune response, such as fever, are not observed. Seizures may be the only symptom of meningitis in young children. The same is true of older people who have other kinds of medical disorders that leave them in a weakened state.

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