Bacterial meningitis is rare but can be ‘lethal,’ say experts. Here’s what parents need to know.

Bacterial meningitis represented by brain in red and blue on a yellow background.
Bacterial meningitis, although rare, is an infection that can turn lethal, say experts. (Getty Images)

Three teachers in Colorado's Cherry Creek school district suddenly died last week, with two believed to have had bacterial meningitis.

Eaglecrest High School canceled athletics and activities on April 11, along with classes the next day after the death of teachers Madelaine Michelle Schmidt, 24, and Judith Briere Geoffroy, 63. Both developed symptoms of bacterial meningitis, according to CNN, although autopsy results are still pending.

"Arapahoe County Public Health will reach out directly to all staff members and families of students determined to be in close contact,” a letter to parents obtained by CNN said. “Those individuals will be offered preventative antibiotics.”

A third teacher in the school district, Cherry Creek High School freshman baseball coach and Willow Creek Elementary physical education teacher Scott Nash, died over the weekend, but his death is not related to bacterial meningitis, according to USA Today.

The deaths of Schmidt and Geoffroy have raised a lot of questions about bacterial meningitis, including how worried parents should be about the illness. Here's what you need to know.

What is bacterial meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "There are different types of meningitis — bacterial, viral and fungal, which is rare," Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life.

All forms of meningitis are serious, but bacterial meningitis has a deadly reputation. "This is the one that can really be lethal, particularly in a rapid amount of time," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences in New York state, tells Yahoo Life. (People with bacterial meningitis can die in a matter of hours, the CDC says.)

Several types of bacteria can cause bacterial meningitis in the U.S., including:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae

  • Group B Streptococcus

  • Neisseria meningitidis

  • Haemophilus influenzae

  • Listeria monocytogenes

  • Escherichia coli

Most people recover from bacterial meningitis — when it's caught early enough, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. "The infection can be severe but, if treated promptly, the mortality rate can be driven very low," he says. But those who recover can have permanent disabilities, such as brain damage, hearing loss and learning disabilities, per the CDC.

How does bacterial meningitis spread?

Some pathogens that cause bacterial meningitis can spread through food, but most spread from person-to- person contact, according to the CDC. Some people can also carry the bacteria (and spread it to others) but do not get sick, Russo says.

Different bacteria may spread by breathing in bacteria after an infected person coughs or sneezes, sharing respiratory or throat secretions from coughing, kissing or living together and eating food that has been prepared by infected people who did not wash their hands well after using the toilet, the CDC says.

Bacterial meningitis symptoms

Symptoms of bacterial meningitis may include the following, Russo says:

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Stiff neck

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Confusion

How worried about bacterial meningitis should parents be?

Experts say that parents should be wary if bacterial meningitis shows up in their child's school. "Bacterial meningitis is extremely serious," Dr. Juan Salazar, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and physician in chief at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. "These cases are not common but, when they do happen, the outcome can be fatal and devastating in many cases."

When a school or other facility detects or suspects a case of bacterial meningitis, "there's a real rush to make sure that anyone who was exposed to the individuals who were infected get recognized and put on prophylactic antibiotics," Salazar says. This can help keep the bacteria from progressing and prevent other illnesses, he says.

But experts point out that most children are now vaccinated against meningitis, which protects them from getting the deadly illness. The CDC recommends that 11- to 12-year-olds get a MenACWY vaccine, with a booster dose at 16 years old. Teens and young adults ages 16 through 23 also may get a different meningitis vaccine, called the MenB vaccine.

"Meningitis vaccines are now routinely indicated as a part of childhood immunization, so a child vaccinated against the various meningococcus strains has little to fear," Adalja says. Ganjian agrees. "The best thing is to do is to get vaccinated and make sure you're up to date with your vaccinations," he says.

"Fortunately, these cases are very rare in this country and the world," Russo says. "But bacterial meningitis is a serious disease and parents should be vigilant if there is an outbreak at their child's school."

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