Health & Fitness

What is meningitis and how can I protect my child after two kids die at daycare?

Children can be vaccinated against meningitis.
Children can be vaccinated against meningitis. File

Two children are dead and a downtown Miami daycare center is closed.

A possible reason for the boys’ deaths: meningitis.

Here’s what you need to know to help protect your child:

▪ What is meningitis?

Meningitis is a highly contagious bacterial disease that often starts with flu-like symptoms such as fever, fatigue and body aches and can rapidly worsen.

The 22-month-old boy who died on Dec. 3 was initially thought to have pneumonia before the doctor treating the child concluded it was meningitis, Dr. Reynald Jean, the head of epidemiology for the state health department’s office in Miami-Dade, told the Miami Herald on Tuesday, when the YWCA Carol Glassman Donaldson Center Day Care closed. The other boy, 2, also at the same downtown Miami center, died Dec. 10 after being diagnosed with pneumonia.

Florida health officials confirmed Wednesday that one of the two children tested positive for pneumococcal meningitis. The second child also is suspected of having contracted meningitis. But because the child died outside of the country state officials have been unable to confirm with laboratory testing whether the second child also had meningitis.

The daycare center and its play stations, located inside the Stephen P. Clark Government Center at 111 NW First St., are being swabbed and will remain closed as the state continues its investigation.

YWCA Carol
This is the playground at the YWCA Carol Glassman Donaldson Center Day Care at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in Miami. DOUGLAS HANKS dhanks@miamiherald.com

▪ Is it contagious?

Meningococcal disease is contagious since it is spread through the exchange of respiratory secretions during close contact such as kissing or coughing on someone, according to the National Meningitis Association.

As children age into later grades like high school and move on to college campuses, the risk grows because meningitis can be spread by sharing food and drink if using the same utensils and cups. Taking a hit off a pal’s cigarette or borrowing a roommate’s lipstick can also transfer the disease from one to another.

About one in 10 people carry meningococcal bacteria in their nose or throat without showing any signs or symptoms and can unknowingly transmit the bacteria. Meningococcal bacteria can’t live outside the body for long so the infection is not as easily spread as a cold virus, the National Meningitis Association says.

▪  What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of meningococcal disease can first appear as a flu-like illness and rapidly worsen. Think: fever, headache, stiff neck.

Sometimes there is nausea, vomiting, photophobia — your eyes become more sensitive to light —and confusion.

In newborns and babies it can be more difficult to notice the most common symptoms of fever, headache or neck stiffness, so also consider these signs in babies like slowness or being inactive, irritable, vomiting, or feeding poorly. In young children, doctors may also look at the child’s reflexes for signs of meningitis, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

▪ The two most common types of meningococcal infections are meningitis and septicemia. Both can prove deadly in just hours, according to the CDC. The fever and fatigue symptoms are similar, but also look for cold hands and feet and chills, rapid breathing, pain in the muscles, joints, chest or belly, and also diarrhea.

In meningococcal meningitis, the bacteria infects the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord and cause swelling. Septicemia is a bloodstream infection where the bacteria enters the bloodstream and multiplies, damaging the walls of the blood vessels and causing bleeding into the skin and organs.

▪  Can it be prevented in a child?

You can help avoid and prevent exposure in several ways.

At the most basic level, maintain healthy habits like making sure your child is getting plenty of rest. Make sure they avoid close contact with people who are showing signs of sickness — and the advice applies to parents and guardians, too.

If you think your child is sick seek medical attention right away. Meningitis is treatable with antibiotics if caught early. Don’t send the kids to school or daycare if they are not feeling well until your pediatrician or doctor gives them the A-OK.

There are vaccines, like the meningitis B vaccine, which was federally approved in 2014. This vaccine can protect against most strains of the disease, which account for about 50 percent of all meningitis cases in young adults. A combination meningitis vaccine, which protects against the A, C, W and Y strains, involves a shot at around age 11 and then a booster dose after 16, the National Meningitis Association and CDC both suggest.

In the Miami daycare deaths, both children had received the required vaccinations for the daycare center, which included a pneumonia vaccine, the state said. But Jean, the epidemiologist in Miami-Dade, noted that meningitis vaccines typically aren’t recommended until a child is 11.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen

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