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Unlike other types of meningitis that develop quickly, e.g. meningococcal or pneumococcal, TB meningitis usually develops slowly with vague symptoms such as aches and pains, loss of appetite and tiredness, usually with a persistent headache.
These vague symptoms can last for several weeks before the more specific symptoms of meningitis such as severe headache, dislike of bright lights and neck stiffness occur. The slow progression of the disease makes it difficult to diagnose and it is often advanced before treatment begins.
Tuberculosis bacteria enter the body by droplet inhalation i.e. breathing in bacteria from the coughing/sneezing of an infected person. The bacteria multiply within the lungs, pass into the bloodstream and are able to travel to other areas of the body. If the bacteria travel to the meninges and brain tissue, small abscesses (tubercles/microtubercles) are formed. These abscesses can burst and cause TB meningitis. This can happen immediately, or several months or years after the initial infection. The infectious process causes a rise in pressure within the skull, resulting in nerve and brain tissue damage, which is often severe.
Anyone can get TB and therefore TB meningitis, but it is more likely to affect those living in poor conditions such as the homeless, and those with other illnesses, especially HIV infections. In areas of the world where the incidence of TB is high, TB meningitis is most common in children under 5. Where the incidence of TB is low, most TB meningitis cases are in adults.
The following areas of the world have a high incidence of TB:
Due to the slow progression and non-specific early symptoms of TB meningitis, diagnosis can be difficult. However, research has shown that early diagnosis and treatment can significantly improve the outcome of the disease. If treatment is started early, most people will make a good recovery provided that the treatment course is completed.
TB meningitis requires admission to hospital and close monitoring to assess the progression of the disease. Each patient will be individually assessed and their care planned accordingly. All patients will be given a combination of antibiotics to treat the infection.
In the UK, isoniazid, rifampicin, pyrazinamide and a fourth drug (e.g. ethambutol) are usually given for the first two months, followed by isoniazid and rifampicin for the next ten months. This combination is given to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance developing. Treatment may vary according to the response of the individual patient.
Drug resistant TB meningitis may require long schedules of treatment with a variety of alternative antibiotics. A steroid (e.g. prednisolone) is also often recommended for the first few weeks of treatment. It is essential that the full course of treatment is completed. This will reduce the risk of the disease returning and of the bacteria becoming resistant to the antibiotics.
Yes, there is a vaccine known as BCG. This vaccine is effective in babies and young children. It gives good protection against the more severe forms of TB, such as TB meningitis. BCG vaccine used to be offered to all children at secondary school in the UK. Due to changes in the distribution and occurrence of TB in the UK, the vaccine is now offered to those individuals who are at greatest risk. The current programme of vaccination targets babies, children and older people who are most likely to catch the disease. The vaccine is also recommended for healthcare workers who may be exposed to TB.
For more information about the BCG vaccine visit the NHS website.
You can download our fact sheet for more information on TB meningitis. Or you can speak to experienced staff on our freephone helpline, available 24-hours a day: 0808 80 10 388, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will come back to you as soon as we can.
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