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Meningitis is defined as an inflammation of the leptomeninges of any cause. Bacteria, which cause meningitis by invading and replicating in the subarachnoid space, are associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Viral infections may also cause meningitis, most commonly enteroviruses, but few children with viral meningitis suffer any long-term sequelae. Therefore, the focus of this chapter will be on bacterial meningitis. Figure 16–1 displays the age and organism-specific rates of bacterial meningitis in the United States prior to the introduction of currently used conjugate vaccines (note the y-axis is a log scale). As can be seen, the greatest risk period for bacterial meningitis is in the first 6 months of life.

Figure 16–1.
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Incidence rates of bacterial meningitis by age and pathogen prior to the introduction of the conjugate H. influenzae type B and heptavalent Strep. pneumoniae vaccines. (From Wenger JD, Hightower AW, Facklam RR, Gaventa S, Broome CV. Bacterial meningitis in the United States, 1986: Report of a multistate surveillance study. The Bacterial Meningitis Study Group. J Infect Dis. 1990;162(6):1316–1323.)


Overall, there has been a remarkable decline in the rate of bacterial meningitis in the developed world over the last two decades with the introduction of the Haemophilus influenzae type B conjugate vaccines, the Streptococcus pneumoniae conjugate vaccines and greater use of meningococcal vaccines. H. influenzae type B was once the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children but has been virtually eliminated in countries utilizing the conjugate vaccine. In the first 2 months of life Enterobacteriaceae (e.g., Escherichia coli, Klebsiella spp.), group B streptococci, and occasionally Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella spp. or enterococci will cause bacterial meningitis. Infections caused by S. pneumoniae occur with increasing in frequency over the second month to become the most likely cause of bacterial meningitis and continue to increase in frequency until 4 or 5 months of age when they begin to decline. Neisseria meningitidis is the most common cause of bacterial meningitis by 1 year of age. S. pneumoniae remains the second most common cause after 1 year of age and all other pathogens trail behind considerably. These two pathogens occur more commonly in the winter months presumably in association with common respiratory viruses, which disrupt mucosal barriers thereby allowing these colonizing pathogens to move from the nasopharynx to the bloodstream more easily. Research is ongoing to develop vaccines that will be effective against a greater number of pneumococcal serotypes and improved meningococcal vaccines that may work for younger children and against group B strains. Table 16–1 reviews microbial causes of meningitis.

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Table 16–1. Etiology of Meningitis

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