A rare but grave condition, meningitis involves an infection in the membranes around the brain and the spinal cord. Meningitis usually arises from a pre-existing viral, bacterial, or fungal infection that reaches the membranes through the bloodstream. Children under two are more likely than others to develop this condition, and the risk increases when a child has a weak immune system. In severe cases, permanent brain damage and even death may result.
A child may suffer from three possible forms of meningitis:
Viral meningitis: This is the most common and least concerning form of meningitis. Viral meningitis often resolves on its own, similar to a flu, but children under one month old may suffer more serious symptoms.
Bacterial meningitis: This form of meningitis typically results from a Group B strep infection transmitted from the mother to the child. However, several other infections also may cause bacterial meningitis, which is generally the most severe form. A child with this condition may suffer from permanent disabilities involving their brain and hearing.
Fungal meningitis: This is the least common form of meningitis in children and usually arises only when a child has a weak immune system. Since it is transmitted through the air, a child usually does not develop fungal meningitis until after they are born.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Meningitis
The progress of meningitis symptoms varies. A child may develop severe symptoms suddenly, or they may suffer from symptoms that suggest a cold or flu for several days before exhibiting meningitis symptoms. If a child contracts a bacterial form of meningitis, they probably will have a fever and may experience seizures caused by the fever. Other indications of meningitis (in any form) may include jaundice, stiffness, headaches, rash, vomiting, lethargy, and light sensitivity. A baby may arch their back, struggle with feeding, or cry more than usual. A parent may notice that the soft spots on their head start to bulge.
A doctor might take blood samples from a child to check for a meningitis infection. A lab can spread the blood samples on plates where viruses, bacteria, or fungi can grow. These blood cultures can identify not only the presence of meningitis but also the cause of the meningitis, which will affect the treatment plan. A doctor also might use a CT scan to look for abscesses in the head, or they might use a lumbar puncture to extract spinal fluid that can be analyzed for viruses, bacteria, or fungi.
Treatment for Meningitis
Sometimes a baby who contracts viral meningitis will not need a specific course of treatment, although a doctor may suggest medicine for their pain. Certain types of viral meningitis, such as those caused by herpes or varicella, may require intravenous medication and a hospital stay. Meanwhile, a doctor likely will treat bacterial meningitis with intravenous antibiotics in a hospital. Treatment for fungal meningitis involves intravenous anti-fungal medication. This form of meningitis may be more persistent than the others, requiring a longer hospital stay.
Although meningitis is a potentially life-threatening condition, a child usually enjoys a strong prognosis if they are treated promptly. They likely can recover fully without permanent complications.
Holding Doctors Accountable for Errors Involving Meningitis
A failure to diagnose and treat meningitis can change the lives of a child and their parents. If a baby survives, they may struggle with vision and hearing loss, seizures, developmental problems, and various forms of brain damage. In some cases, meningitis may damage the heart and the kidneys as well. A child may need ongoing treatment for meningitis complications, which can be expensive. To relieve this financial burden, parents can bring a medical malpractice claim against a health care provider who failed to promptly diagnose and treat meningitis. This can provide compensation for the treatment needed by their child, including the costs of reasonably likely future treatment.
To show that a doctor made a mistake in diagnosing or treating meningitis, parents will need to present expert testimony from a health care provider familiar with the field. An expert witness can explain the steps that a doctor should have followed, and they can describe how the doctor’s failure to take these steps caused harm to the child. When a case involves permanent disabilities, an expert also can discuss the impact of these disabilities on each area of the child’s life. Retaining experts and navigating these complex lawsuits can be challenging. Parents should consult a birth injury lawyer, who likely will handle a case on a contingency fee basis.
In a contingency fee arrangement, an attorney will collect their fee as a percentage of a compensation award at the end of the case.