Meningitis and Cerebral Palsy

When one thinks on the typical causes of cerebral palsy, attention is paid to what happens to the child in the womb, during delivery, and immediately after birth. A child whose brain suffers injury or trauma during these times is at risk of developing cerebral palsy if the brain’s neurological development is negatively impacted in some way. When the child later develops cerebral palsy from these injuries and/or trauma, the cerebral palsy is often described as congenital – meaning the cerebral palsy was present since birth (even if it was not actually diagnosed until months later).

Meningitis and Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy may also be acquired, however – meaning that the child’s brain was not injured during the mother’s pregnancy or during delivery but rather by some injury or trauma occurring after the child’s birth. Neonatal meningitis is one such potential cause of acquired cerebral palsy if the condition is not properly diagnosed and treated. Complications such as cerebral palsy may be likely if the child goes into shock or experiences respiratory failure.

Meningitis refers to an inflammation of the membranes that surround and protect the central nervous system. Newborns are most susceptible to developing meningitis, especially during the first few weeks of life. If the inflammation is not resolved in a timely manner, it can damage the child’s brain and lead to cerebral palsy. Unfortunately for parents and doctors alike, the signs and symptoms of neonatal meningitis are rather nonspecific – a fever, irritability, and/or difficulty breathing may be the only symptoms of neonatal meningitis that a child might display. The only method whereby doctors are able to determine that meningitis is present is by examining a sample of the child’s cerebrospinal fluid.

Causes of Meningitis

Neonatal meningitis is caused by a bacterial or viral infection. While a newborn may develop meningitis as the result of a bacterial or viral infection passed on to the child through the child’s mother (early onset meningitis), the child may also develop a bacterial infection that turns into meningitis from the newborn infant’s environment (late onset meningitis). This means there are two important courses of action whereby medical professionals may be able to prevent a child from developing meningitis:

  • Managing maternal infections: Doctors and other medical professionals should first take care to properly diagnose and treat any bacterial or viral infections that may be present in the mother. For example, if the Herpes Simplex Virus is present in the mother, this can cause an infection in the newborn that leads to meningitis. Thus, medical professionals should pay careful attention to an expectant mother’s health and provide care and treatment to the mother for any infections she may develop.
  • Managing the newborn’s environment: In a similar way, healthcare workers and medical professionals should take care that the newborn’s environment is free from bacteria. Placing a newborn infant in a nursey wherein other children are ill or using equipment that is not properly sterilized can unnecessarily increase the infant’s risk of exposure to a bacterial infection.

When medical professionals have a reason to believe that a newborn child has developed meningitis (if, for example, the child is fussy, has trouble breathing, and/or , a duty may arise requiring these professionals to accurately diagnose the cause of the newborn’s symptoms and, if meningitis is detected, to treat the condition promptly and appropriately. Meningitis caused by a bacterial infection will usually be treated by a course of antibiotics (the specific antibiotic used will depend on the specific bacteria that is causing the infection). Similarly, f the child’s meningitis is due to a viral infection, an antiviral treatment regimen should be initiated.

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