“This research highlights the importance of good follow-up, to detect disabilities that may not be immediately apparent.”
The study, led by Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet and published in the leading medical journal JAMA Network Open, identifies for the first time the long-term health burden of bacterial meningitis.
One in three children who suffer from bacterial meningitis live with permanent neurological disabilities due to the infection.
Importance of good follow-up
Claire Donovan, our Helpline and Information Nurse Manager, said: “We are extremely interested in the findings of this new study, which describes the long-term risks of disabilities after bacterial meningitis in childhood.
“Our support team works with many families whose children have undiagnosed disabilities following meningitis. This research highlights the importance of good follow-up, to detect disabilities that may not be immediately apparent, and adds to the wider body of knowledge and understanding of this disease.”
By analysing data from the Swedish quality register on bacterial meningitis between 1987 and 2021, the research team has been able to compare more than 3,500 people who contracted bacterial meningitis as children with just over 32,000 matched controls from the general population. The average follow-up time is over 23 years.
The results show that those diagnosed with bacterial meningitis consistently have a higher prevalence of neurological disabilities such as cognitive impairment, seizures, visual or hearing impairment, motor impairment, behavioural disorders, or structural damage to the head.
The risk was highest for structural head injuries – 26 times the risk; hearing impairment – almost eight times the risk; and motor impairment – almost five times the risk.
About one in three people affected by bacterial meningitis had at least one neurological impairment compared to one in ten among the control group.
Whole family affected
Federico Iovino, one of the authors of the study and an associate professor in Medical Microbiology at the Karolinska Institutet, said:
“When children are affected, the whole family is affected. If a three-year-old child has impaired cognition, a motor disability, impaired or lost vision or hearing, it has a major impact. These are lifelong disabilities that become a major burden for both the individual and society, as those affected need health care support for the rest of their lives.
"Our research shows that even if the bacterial infection is cured, many people suffer from neurological impairment afterwards."
The research team will now continue its work to try to develop treatments that can protect neurons in the brain during the few days it takes for the antibiotics used to treat meningitis to take full effect.