Meningitis is an infection of the fluid that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord. Most cases are caused by a virus or bacteria.
Medical experts say people with viral meningitis generally get better within about ten days. Bacterial meningitis is rare and more serious. It may cause brain damage, hearing loss or, in some cases, death.
Tests on a small amount of fluid taken from the spinal cord can show if the infection is viral or bacterial. Bacterial meningitis can be treated with antibiotic drugs. Experts say it is important to begin treatment as early as possible.
Common signs of meningitis include high body temperature, headache and neck pain. Also, people may be sleepy and not able to think clearly. Newborn babies with meningitis may not eat; they may have little energy or cry continually. Meningitis can also cause vomiting and seizures in both children and adults.
Meningitis can spread when a person coughs or sneezes. And it can spread through kissing. Crowded living conditions may also increase the spread of meningitis. Signs of the disease usually appear within two to ten days of infection.
Around the world, different kinds of bacteria cause different forms of meningitis. The highest infection rates are in southern Africa in countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia and Niger. These countries are part of what is known as the "African meningitis belt," from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east.
The last major outbreak of meningitis in Africa was in nineteen ninety-six and ninety-seven. The World Health Organization had reports of more than two hundred fifty thousand cases. More than twenty thousand people died.
Reports last month said a meningitis outbreak in Ethiopia had killed at least forty people and infected more than four hundred. Health officials organized a campaign to vaccinate people against the disease.
Vaccines can protect against some of the most common bacteria that cause meningitis. In two thousand three, researchers developed a vaccine against a new strain. This form of meningitis killed at least one thousand five hundred people in Burkina Faso in two thousand two.
This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Cynthia Kirk. Our reports are online at voaspecialenglish.com. I'm Gwen Outen.