By Genevra Pittman
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Kids who have had bacterial meningitis are less likely to finish high school and to be economically self-sufficient as adults, a new study suggests.
The findings are consistent with past research showing that meningitis - inflammation around the brain and spinal cord - increases long-term risks of mental retardation and other disabilities stemming from brain tissue damage.
But the results are unique in that researchers were able to track patients' educational and economic achievements into adulthood, according to Dr. Casper Roed, the study's lead author from Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark.
"We save almost all of (these kids) in the Western world, and that's wonderful news, but what we can see are long-term effects," he told Reuters Health.
Roed and his colleagues followed 2,800 Danish youths who were diagnosed with meningococcal, pneumococcal or Haemophilus influenzae meningitis in 1977 through 2007. They used national education and economic data to compare each of those children to another four of the same age and gender, who did not have meningitis.
The researchers found that by age 35, between 41 and 48 percent of people who'd had meningitis as children had completed high school, compared to 52 to 53 percent of the comparison group.
Similarly, 84 to 91 percent of meningitis survivors were economically self-sufficient as adults, versus 94 to 95 percent of those who hadn't had the disease, the study team reported Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Roed said those differences appeared to be due to lasting effects of the meningitis, itself, at least in cases of pneumococcal and H. influenzae disease.
However, the siblings and parents of children who'd had meningococcal meningitis were also more likely to fall short educationally, the study team determined. So for those childhood survivors, education and economic troubles could be explained by meningococcal meningitis being more common in socially-deprived areas.
According to Roed, the findings show the need to provide extra support to kids who are having difficulty in school after a bout of meningitis.
But it's also possible to keep young people from getting bacterial meningitis in the first place, researchers noted.
"The good news is, these are all vaccine-preventable," said Dr. Lee Harrison, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania who wasn't involved in the new study.
Vaccines against pneumococcus and H. influenzae are recommended starting at two months of age in the United States, he noted, and the meningococcal shot is on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's adolescent vaccine schedule.
"Several states have experienced H. flu meningitis cases that resulted in deaths because of parents that didn't want to vaccinate" - typically because of unsupported health concerns, Harrison told Reuters Health.
"If there's any message I could give, it's that these vaccines are exceeding safe and they're highly effective and the consequences of the disease are devastating."
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/JjFzqx Journal of the American Medical Association, online April 23, 2013.