Why Organizations Should Be Aware of the Dangers of Meningitis

Workers who spend a significant amount of time in close quarters with one another, such as off-shore oil rigs, isolated job sites, worker camps, etc., are more susceptible to an outbreak of meningitis, a potentially deadly infectious disease. The effects of bacterial meningitis in particular are severe, and can cause long lasting disability. Due to the increased risk for certain workers, and given how serious bacterial meningitis can be, it is important that organizations have a well-established course of action in case of an outbreak. 

The CDC describes meningitis as “a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges.” Different types of meningitis can cause varying severities of symptoms. The four major types of meningitis, according to the Mayo Clinic, are:

  • Bacterial meningitis: The most deadly type of meningitis. Four different types of bacteria cause most of the cases of bacterial meningitis.
  • Viral meningitis:  In stark contrast with bacterial meningitis, viral meningitis is relatively benign and no specific treatment is usually needed.
  • Fungal meningitis: Often occurs in immune-compromised individuals. Can be life-threatening if not treated promptly with anti-fungal medication.
  • Chronic meningitis: includes non-infectious causes such as auto-immune diseases and cancer. It often develops gradually over a period of weeks or months.

Given the frequency and severity of bacterial meningitis, as well as the workplace concerns associated with it, this article will focus mainly on bacterial meningitis. Organizations should be aware if any of their workers might be at increased risk, and should have a contingency plan in place to handle any workplace issues that arise. This article will cover signs and symptoms of meningitis, the different strains of bacteria that cause meningitis, highlight risk factors, discuss prevention techniques, and offer solutions for keeping your workforce healthy and on the job.

Bacterial meningitis is the most severe form of meningitis. The CDC reports that there are around 4,100 cases per year with 500 deaths caused by bacterial meningitis. The signs and symptoms of this disease can be difficult to differentiate from many other infectious diseases and they include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Confusion

The Mayo Clinic offers a straightforward and helpful breakdown of the various strains of bacterial meningitis, with each carrying different risk factors for different age groups:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae: “The most common cause of bacterial meningitis in infants, young children and adults in the United States.” A vaccination is available to reduce the chances of an infection with this organism. The vaccination is now routine for children, but for unvaccinated adults, it is typically not recommended until after the age of 65, unless an adult under the age of 65 has certain specific medical risk factors that compromise the immune system.
  • Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus):  This bacteria is particularly contagious. It mainly affects teenagers and young adults. This strain is what can lead to a bacterial meningitis outbreak in close quarters such as a dormitory, barracks, off-shore boat or oil rig,  or worker camp. Travel to certain countries where meningococcus is endemic is also a risk factor. A vaccination is highly recommended for those who will be at increased risk. In certain cases, co-workers who have been exposed to a colleague with meningococcal meningitis might need to receive prophylactic antibiotic treatment to prevent illness.
  • Haemophilus infuenzae: The relatively recent availability of a vaccine has rendered infection with this bacteria relatively rare, though it used to be the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children.
  • Listeria monocytogenes: Most recently seen in the news due to outbreaks in food processing plants around the country, leading to massive recalls of various products. Those at greatest risk to this strain are pregnant women, infants, and older adults.

If a meningitis infection is suspected, it is important to receive treatment as quickly as possible to prevent complications. The risk of dying from bacterial meningitis even when treated with antibiotics can be up to 15%. Even those who do not die can face long lasting effects.   WebMD reports that “20% of those who survive may have lasting problems such as hearing loss, brain damage, seizures, or loss of limbs.” Since meningococcal meningitis is reportable to public health authorities, public health officials will be involved in making recommendations for antibiotic prophylaxis.

An effective infectious disease prevention program begins with education. Posting helpful educational materials around a job site or work camp will provide workers with a blueprint for stopping an infectious disease outbreak before it can even begin. These general prevention techniques include: washing your hands frequently or utilizing alcohol based hand cleansers, covering your mouth with your sleeve when coughing or sneezing, not sharing food or drinks, and cleaning shared surfaces with disinfectant regularly. Following general cleanliness guidelines can go a considerable length in preventing an outbreak of many types of infectious diseases (including colds and flu).

Those at increased risk for specific types of bacterial meningitis should ensure their vaccinations are up-to-date. In most cases, these vaccinations would be provided by their primary care provider, although meningitis vaccination is sometimes provided by the employer for international business travelers. For a list of vaccinations from the Mayo Clinic website, click here. The MCV4 vaccine is the vaccination indicated for individuals who are at risk for meningococcal meningitis. It is recommended to be administered between the ages of 11 to 12, with a booster shot at 16. However, if first administered as an adult, then no booster shot is required.

Should an employee develop meningitis, an organization should contact their occupational health partner to immediately begin a plan of action to assess the risk to co-workers and to prevent a further spread of the infection. Organizations should consider partnering with occupational health specialists that can assist the organization with the creation of a meningitis prevention program to effectively handle vaccinations when medically indicated, or oversee prophylactic antibiotic treatment in the case of a meningococcal workplace exposure. Consulting with occupational health specialists can ensure that the response to a workplace meningitis exposure is appropriate and keeps co-workers safe.