What is bacterial meningitis, the illness that killed Jeff Beck?

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What is bacterial meningitis, the illness that killed Jeff Beck?


After contracting bacterial meningitis, legendary rock guitarist Jeff Beck died Wednesday at the age of 78, according to a statement posted to his official social media accounts and confirmed to CNN by his agent.

“On behalf of his family, it is with deep and profound sadness that we share the news of Jeff Beck’s passing,” the statement read. “After suddenly contracting bacterial meningitis, he peacefully passed away yesterday. His family ask for privacy while they process this tremendous loss.”

Unbelievable as it may be, death can occur within hours of contracting bacterial meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. The swelling is typically caused when an infection attacks the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. However, most people recover from the illness, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Those who do recover can have permanent disabilities, such as brain damage, hearing loss, and learning disabilities,” the CDC noted on its website.

Symptoms of the illness can mimic the flu or Covid-19 and include a headache, fever, nausea or vomiting, brain fog, sensitivity to light, sleepiness or trouble waking, and a stiff neck.

“Meningitis can be acute, with a quick onset of symptoms, it can be chronic, lasting a month or more, or it can be mild or aseptic,” according to the Cleveland Clinic.

See a doctor immediately if you or a loved one have a sudden high fever, a severe headache that doesn’t ease, confusion, vomiting, or a painful, stiff neck with limited range of motion.

Babies are more susceptible than other age groups, according to the CDC. Signs to look for include irritability, vomiting, inactivity, feeding poorly, abnormal reflexes and a bulging “soft spot,” or fontanel, on the head. Call the doctor immediately with any concerns.

A number of bacteria can cause meningitis, as can viruses, parasites, fungi, amoeba, and some injuries, drugs, and conditions like lupus or cancer. Treatment differs based on the cause of meningitis, so it’s important to know the source. To find out, doctors will collect samples of blood or do a spinal tap, which they send to a laboratory for analysis.

“Doctors treat bacterial meningitis with a number of antibiotics. It is important to start treatment as soon as possible,” the CDC said.

Viral meningitis, while serious, is much less deadly than the bacterial version, and people with a normal immune system typically get better on their own, the CDC said.

A viral case of meningitis is “not generally considered to be contagious,” according to Meningitis Now, an information and support charity based in the United Kingdom.

“Viral meningitis is not passed on to others by being in close contact — unlike the meningococcal form of bacterial meningitis — so no preventive treatment is needed for relatives,” the group stated.

The types of bacteria that cause meningitis can be spread in a number of ways. Group B Streptococcus and E. coli bacteria can be passed from mother to child during birth.

Pregnant women are also susceptible to Listeria monocytogenes infections, which can lead to “miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn, including meningitis,” the CDC said.

The bacterium Neisseria meningitidis is shown. It spreads when people in close contact share saliva or spit.

Several other bacteria that cause meningitis — Haemophilus influenzae, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and Streptococcus pneumoniae — are passed to others by coughing or sneezing. Bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis spread by sharing saliva or spit, which typically occurs when people are kissing, coughing or living in close contact.

Not everyone who spreads the bacteria that causes meningitis gets sick. Some people carry these germs in their noses or on their bodies without knowing it.

“These people are ‘carriers.’ Most carriers never become sick, but can still spread the bacteria to others,” the CDC noted.

People with certain medical conditions, such as HIV infection or serious immune deficiency, those who don’t have spleens and patients on chemotherapy, are more likely to contract the disease, the CDC said. Travelers to sub-Saharan Africa, which has a “Meningitis belt” that extends from Senegal to Ethiopia, are also at increased risk.

Meningococcal disease refers to any sickness caused by Neisseria meningitidis. The infection can lead to both meningitis and a serious infection of the bloodstream called sepsis, or blood poisoning. Sepsis can travel within hours throughout the body, causing extremities to quickly gangrene and organs to fail.

A skin rash can be a sign of meningococcal meningitis, along with the typical symptoms of high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, nausea and vomiting, confusion, and sensitivity to light.

“Meningococcal disease is rare and has declined in the United States since the 1990s. However, it is a severe disease with a significant risk of death or lasting disabilities in people who get it,” according to the CDC.

“Even when it is treated, meningococcal disease kills 10 to 15 infected people out of 100. And of those who survive, about 10 to 20 out of every 100 will suffer disabilities such as hearing loss, brain damage, kidney damage, loss of limbs, nervous system problems, or severe scars from skin grafts,” the agency added.

Cases occur during summer camps or in college dorm settings due to the close quarters, claiming the lives of students such as San Diego State University freshman Sara Stelzer. She died in 2014 three days after contracting a strain of meningococcal meningitis that wasn’t included in the recommended vaccine at the time.

Keeping you and your family up to date on vaccines is a key way to prevent bacterial and viral meningitis, the CDC advised.

There are four basic types of vaccines: pneumococcal vaccines, Hib vaccines, two meningococcal vaccines and the Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine that protects against tuberculosis.

One meningococcal vaccine protects against serogroups A, C, W and Y. To be protected against serogroup B, the disease that has taken the lives of a number of college students, a different vaccine called MenB is used.

Vaccine efficacy can wane over time, so it’s wise to check with your health care provider to see whether you might need a booster.