Cases of meningococcal bacterial meningitis are increasing in Italy, with experts warning that it is the most impactful and complicated form of meningitis. Paola Stefanelli, the research director of the Infectious Diseases department of the Higher Institute of Health (ISS), shared this information on World Meningitis Day.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the incidence of meningococcal meningitis in the general population was around 0.32 per 100 thousand inhabitants, similar to the European average. However, with the use of masks and social distancing during the pandemic, cases drastically reduced to an incidence of 0.1 per 100 thousand inhabitants. Nevertheless, the most recent data indicates a slight rise towards pre-COVID numbers.
Meningococcal meningitis is a rare but rapidly progressing disease that can lead to severe complications and even death. The incidence varies depending on the age group, with 2.5 cases per 100 thousand in infants under one year of age and in adolescents. In 2015-2016, an outbreak of meningococcal C meningitis in Tuscany resulted in deaths, and other small clusters were reported in different areas.
Although the lethality of meningitis is not low, vaccination and timely antibiotic treatments have improved patient management. Prevention is considered the most powerful tool against the disease. The quadrivalent vaccine (ACWY) is recommended for individuals aged 2 and above, with boosters given up to the age of 5 and between 11 and 15, which can be extended up to 20 years. Newborns are also recommended to receive the anti-meningococcal B vaccine with a booster in their second year of life. The anti-meningococcal B vaccine is also recommended for individuals with certain health conditions that increase their risk of meningococcal disease.
Recognizing the symptoms associated with meningitis is crucial for early intervention and potentially saving lives. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, severe headache, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light, muscle or joint pain, confusion, cold hands and feet, rash (petechiae), and convulsions. However, experts caution that symptoms may not always appear together, can be similar to other conditions, and may not be easily recognizable.
The symptoms of meningitis can vary between different age groups. In younger people, the disease tends to present more noticeable signs and symptoms, but it can progress rapidly, leading to fatal cases occasionally. In contrast, the symptoms in elderly individuals may be less obvious, and a state of drowsiness could be the primary indicator. Recognizing meningitis in older adults can be challenging, with delays in diagnosis occurring even after the patient has been admitted to the hospital.
With the rise in cases of meningococcal meningitis in Italy, it is crucial for the public to be aware of its symptoms and seek medical attention promptly if they suspect they may be infected. Vaccination remains the most effective preventive measure, particularly for those in high-risk groups.