In 1906, scientists began to recommend anti-meningococcal serum therapy to protect humans against meningococcal disease; a therapy based on antibodies initially derived from the blood of horses, and later from patients, or individuals recovering from meningococcal disease. Its effectiveness meant that it was used prophylactically in those who had been in close contact with patients of meningococcal disease – though it was a risky procedure. However, once it was realised that people could carry meningococcal bacteria without showing any clinical signs of disease, efforts were focused on eliminating this carrier status. Attempts at spraying dried anti-meningococcal serum into the nostrils however produced disappointing results.
Anti-serums remained the therapy of choice until the 1930’s when American scientist Sara Branham (1888-1962) found that meningococcal bacteria could be more effectively treated with sulphonamides.
Modern treatments changed with the discovery of penicillin in 1941. The advent of antibiotics revolutionised treatment of meningitis and other bacterial diseases. Antibiotics are extremely good at killing meningitis causing bacteria, so are an effective cure, but do not always act fast enough to prevent the damage the bacteria can cause. This is why acting fast, if you suspect meningitis in yourself or someone you know, is so important.
The challenge now and in the future is anti-microbial resistance
, and the lack of new drugs in the pipeline, particularly for gram-negative bacteria.
Meningitis has many causes, mostly bacterial and viral
, and more rarely other pathogens. Preventing the illness requires a sophisticated understanding of how the different pathogens work in order to protect against them.
Vaccines have been the breakthrough needed to prevent infectious diseases. Together with clean water, they have had more impact on the world’s health than anything else. Conjugate vaccines, which are effective in young children, were a significant breakthrough in preventing the leading causes of the meningitis. The first was the Hib vaccine in 1987, which was introduced to many countries throughout the 1990s.