A Q&A with a WHO expert on Defeating Meningitis

Melanie Parker –  PHAA Intern


The global COVID-19 pandemic has overshadowed much of the other work public health professionals and researchers are involved in. This includes climate change, obesity, and other communicable diseases such as meningitis. Meningitis can have devastating impacts on individuals and increase financial burden on the health system, beyond simply its epidemic potential.

Several different bacterium groups cause bacterial meningitis, including commonly known Neisseria meningitidis which can cause meningococcal disease. Since the introduction of the meningococcal meningitis vaccines on the National Immunisation Program in 2003, meningococcal disease is now rare in Australia.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners have been developing a roadmap to Defeating Meningitis, led by experts including Dr Marie-Pierre Preziosi who kindly allowed us to interview her for this blog.

Q: Dr Preziosi, thank you for allowing us to interview you regarding this important topic. Could you please give us some background on meningitis, its causes and transmission?

A: Certainly. Meningitis is a serious, life-threatening illness. It is an infection of the meninges, which are three layers of membrane covering the central nervous system – the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be caused by microbials including viruses and bacteria. Bacterial meningitis can develop into serious conditions like meningococcal disease, which can lead to septicaemia, or pneumococcal meningitis, which cause a high frequency of serious long-term after-effects.

The bacteria that cause meningitis are transmitted from person-to-person through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions from carriers. Close and prolonged contact – such as kissing, sneezing or coughing on someone, or living in close quarters with an infected person, facilitates the spread of the disease.

Anyone, anywhere of any age can get meningitis, although some people are at a higher risk than others.

Q: What are the current health impacts felt across the world due to meningitis?

A: Fatality rates are high in people who contract bacterial meningitis. It kills about 300,000 people each year and leaves 1 in 5 of those affected with long-term devastating sequelae including ongoing pain, auditory and vision loss, loss of limb and learning difficulties. This has a large impact both on the individual’s life, as well as that of their family, and increases disease burden on health systems even in a high-resource setting such as Australia.

It is also a significant health security concern. Meningitis epidemics can strike fast, are unpredictable and cause massive disruption to communities and health systems.

Q: Can you elaborate on why there is a new roadmap being developed for defeating meningitis in 2021?

A: Despite successful efforts to control meningitis, it continues to be a major public health issue. We are creating a roadmap which will eliminate meningitis epidemics and reduce vaccine-preventable cases and deaths. The other key aspect is how to improve rehabilitation and access to essential services after the contraction of meningitis in all communities.

Q: What are the new innovations described in the roadmap which will help achieve these goals?

A: We plan to assist in the research and development and enhanced access to affordable vaccines, improve diagnosis at all levels of health care and strengthen systems for surveillance of meningitis, detection of the main pathogens and prompt and integrated management of cases in the acute and long-term phases.

Q: What are the strategies the WHO will implement to reduce the after-effects of meningitis on people’s lives?

A: The strategies include improving people’s knowledge of current services available in their countries, promoting technological innovations and strengthening partnerships between governments and rehabilitation organizations to improve services to those affected by meningitis. It also involves analysis of the gaps in current national health services and creating strategies to address this.

Q: When the roadmap will be launched?

A: Dr Tedros, Director-General, WHO and partners will launch the Defeating Meningitis by 2030 A Global Road Map on Tuesday 28 September 2021 (from 11pm AEST). I invite everyone to join us for the launch which will be live streamed on the WHO website.

Q: Finishing on a personal note, what do you love about working in public health, and what is a highlight of your career so far?

A: Feeling the energy of multiple networks of multiple collaborations, worldwide and at all levels, and the fulfilling spirit of bringing hope to people through the solutions and services we collectively develop through them, with them and for them.



Photo Credit: CDC on Unsplash – “An example of results from drug testing during a North American meningitis outbreak investigation, performed by the CDC”

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