Preventing meningitis

Tara Bradbury
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Group aims to help people recognize symptoms of dangerous illness

Mark Callanan

It started one Friday night with a headache — a strange one, around the back of the head. Then it seemed like the flu, causing fever and chills.

After that, Mark Callanan doesn’t really remember much.

“Apparently, the following morning, I was just writhing around on the bed, clearly in discomfort, and then at one point I was trying to walk down the stairs,” said Callanan, a poet from St. John’s. “Andreae said I just had this vacant look in my eyes, so she led me back to the bedroom and called an ambulance. When the EMTs got there, they had to fight to strap me onto a stretcher, because I was just delirious.”

At the hospital, Callanan was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, and started on a course of antibiotics right away. Doctors put him in a medical coma and told his family the prognosis wasn’t good: if he managed to pull through, he’d likely have brain damage.

A week later, he came around, faculties intact. After another week, he was released from hospital.

Callanan’s wife Andreae and stepdaughter, although they didn’t have any symptoms, underwent tests and a round of antibiotics.


Callanan was required to give public health nurses a list of people with whom he had been in contact in the 24 hours before he fell ill.

In an effort to raise awareness of the seriousness of meningitis, the Confederation of Meningitis Organizations has declared today World Meningitis Day, urging people to learn about the disease, its symptoms and the vaccines available to help prevent it.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the spinal cord and the lining of the brain, caused by a viral or bacterial infection.

Bacterial meningitis, like what Callanan survived, is life-threatening, while viral meningitis is serious but rarely fatal.

The bacteria that can cause the disease is present in about one-fifth of Canadians, living without danger in the nose and the back of the throat, according to These carriers, though not sick themselves, can unknowingly transmit the bacteria to others.

“It’s very easily spread through droplets, much like a cold or the flu,” said Canadian parenting expert Alyson Schafer. “You can imagine how, in daycares, children might grab a rattle that another child had in their mouth, or pick up someone else’s pacifier and suck on it.

“The symptoms get worse very quickly, and bacterial meningitis can end up being fatal within a few hours.”

Schafer, a psychotherapist who is a member of the Health Advisory Board for Chatelaine magazine and a columnist for Today’s Parent magazine, was speaking about meningitis Monday, helping to promote World Meningitis Day and the Meninfo website.

Her uncle contracted meningitis years ago, she said, and is now deaf as a result.

“He says he can remember being on the stretcher, being rushed to the hospital, and the paramedics saying, ‘Are you OK? Can you hear me?’ By the time he got to the hospital, he couldn’t hear them anymore — he could only see their lips moving. That’s how quickly he went deaf because of the meningitis.”

Septicemia, a rare condition, happens when the meningitis bacteria enters the bloodstream, and can result in the amputation of limbs.

In Canada, according to Meninfo, an average of 290 cases of meningococcal disease are reported each year, and one in 10 of these people die within 48 hours. Up to 20 per cent more deal with consequences such as brain damage, hearing loss, or loss of arms or legs.

While meningitis can affect anyone, there’s a higher instance among infants and children under age five, as well as adolescents.

“There’s a high rate among teenagers, sharing drinks, utensils, lipsticks, having their first kiss, even,” Schafer said. “Are you going to be able to stop teenagers from kisses or taking a sip from someone else’s Coke can? No, but you can educate them about the dangers.”

There are two types of meningococcal vaccines available in Canada at the moment, Schafer said, and vaccines to fight different strains of the bacteria are constantly being developed.

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends the vaccines for children under five, adolescents and those at high risk of infection, and Schafer stresses the importance of parents keeping up to date with their children’s vaccinations.

“It’s the best way to prevent the disease,” she said.

Callanan has recovered from his bout with bacterial meningitis, although he said he can no longer swing with his children at the playground without getting vertigo.

His near-death experience inspired him to write “Gift Horse,” a collection of poetry published last fall, which was shortlisted for the 2011 BMO Winterset Award.

“I feel fine. I think I got off very, very lucky. It inspired some poems, but I don’t think I’d do it again,” he said, laughing.


Symptoms of Meningitis and Septicemia

Both meningococcal meningitisand septicemia are medical emergencies and require immediate medical attention.

In infants:

Symptoms may be absent or difficult to detect. Some symptoms of meningococcal meningitis and septicemia include when the infant:

> Refuses to eat

> Has difficulty breathing (rapid or laboured breathing)

> Is vomiting

> Has a fever

> Doesn't want to be picked up or held

> is sluggish or lethargic

> Has swelling on the soft spot of the head

> Develops a rash (deep red or purple spots)

In children, adolescents and adults:

> Symptoms may resemble the flu.

> Lethargy

> A rash (deep red or purple spots that don't fade under pressure)

> Fever

> Headache

> Stiff neck (may be painful when trying to lower chin to chest)

> Confusion or delirium

> Vomiting

> Muscle pains and diarrhea

> Sensitivity to light

> Seizures

Keep in mind that some or all of these symptoms may or may not be present.


Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Confederation of Meningitis Organizations, Health Advisory Board for Chatelaine, Parent magazine National Advisory Committee on Immunization

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • Jeannie Dunphy
    April 25, 2012 - 05:54

    I had bacterial meningitis at the age of five. I to, was sent home with the flu. Thankfully my mother took me to another doctor where I started to convulse in my mothers arms. I was sent directly to the Old Janeway. My daugther had virual menigistis at age 21 DAYS old. I was told that children of that age "crash" quickly. Looking back I think they were trying to say die suddenly. Today neither of us are any worse for the wear, the only side affect is we have no imnune system. We pick up everthing, (even with good hygine) and what ever we pick up seems to hit us five times harder than the average person.

  • Michelle
    April 24, 2012 - 09:28

    In the 1970's I had an infant brother who died from meningitis. It happened very quickly and was horrifiying. While I did not get to see him just before he passed, I was told that his little form had swelled so much that he was unrecognizable. He was initially misdiagnosed as having the flu and sent home. The family was told that had he survived, he would have been deaf with severe brain damage and multiple disabilities as well. I still miss him and am shocked at how fast it took him from us. Mark, you are indeed truly lucky.

  • Darrell Squires
    April 24, 2012 - 07:59

    Excellent feature, and such valuable information. You are lucky for sure, Mark.

    • Patrick Guilfoyle
      April 24, 2012 - 09:39

      Tara Bradbury, thank you for sharing Mark Callanan's miraculous story. In the Spring of 1980, I was rushed to the Janeway hospital. I was semi-conscious. I had a fever of about 41, was throwing up, had a throbbing pain like nothing I've ever experienced in the back of my head and felt like a steam roller ran over me. I was admitted to hospital, but it wasn't until a few days later that Dr. Chandra (specialist in paediatric infectuous diseases) and Dr. Button (a resident at the time) diagnosed me with spinal meningitis. Back then, very little was known about meningitis. I am lucky to be alive. I was in hospital for 3 weeks. I will always owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Chandra and Dr. Button.