Evidence suggests that social distancing and other non-medical preventative strategies for COVID-19 are also working to help prevent the spread of other infectious diseases, including some types of meningitis.
However, the Paediatric Infectious Diseases Group of the French Society of Paediatrics (GPIP) have warned that this could mean that new epidemics of diseases such as meningitis arise as social distancing measures are eased.
Behind a short-term win of lower global non-COVID infection rates lurks a risk of ‘disease rebound’. The reduced exposure to viruses and bacteria could lead to a lack of immunity in the population which opens corridors for diseases to spread rapidly.
Exposure to bacteria and viruses can cause life-threatening infections, but while nearly all of us are exposed to meningitis-causing bacteria at some time in our lives, most of us do not become ill. Most people who are exposed carry the bacteria in the back of the nose and throat, and this can build or boost immunity. Some strains of meningitis-causing bacteria are more likely to be harmlessly carried than others, and many of us are protected from developing serious infection because we have carried a related, but harmless, bacteria called Neisseria lactamica when we were young children. Carrying these bacteria contributes to the development of population-wide herd immunity and helps stop the spread of more serious and deadly forms of meningitis-causing bacteria.
Social distancing and other COVID responses have severely curtailed this natural circulation, blocking both the benefits and harms of exposure to these bacteria. We could therefore see a lack of immune stimulation leading to an ‘immunity debt’ within the population.
Disrupted routine vaccinations
Additionally, COVID has severely disrupted many routine vaccination programmes across the world, leaving people unprotected.
Focusing solely on the fight against COVID could create a ticking time bomb for public policy. There is an urgent need for public and policy education to explain the potential risks of new epidemics and ensure suitable action is taken before it’s too late.
The group has put forward four recommendations:
- There is a need for an unprecedented effort for catch-up campaigns for vaccines that prevent infectious diseases, to halt potential epidemics and address the alarming drop in protection.
- Invest in vaccination and use the once in a generation opportunity of lower infection rates to maintain and build routine immunisations programmes to keep cases low.
- Educate the public about the importance of all vaccinations and take action to reduce vaccine hesitancy.
- Implement actions set out in the World Health Organization global roadmap to defeat meningitis by 2030.