MENINGITIS is more prevalent in the winter months and everyone should be aware of the signs and symptoms, warns a North West health expert to look out for and be prepared to take urgent action whenever it is suspected, according to

Professor Qutub Syed, director, Health Protection Agency (HPA) North West said everyone should be prepared to take urgent action whenever meningitis is suspected.

“We tend to see more cases in the winter months and particularly when flu is around, as people with flu are more susceptible to meningococcal infection,’he explained.

“People should be particularly vigilant this year as we have swine flu in the community in addition to normal seasonal flu, so there is a lot of infection about.

“People should not be unduly concerned, but if you suspect that someone has meningococcal disease, call the doctor immediately.

“If the doctor isn’t available, take the patient to the nearest accident and emergency department. Prompt action is vital.”

Meningococcal infection is caused by the bacterium (germ) meningococcus.

It causes meningitis (inflammation of the brain lining) and/or septicaemia (blood poisoning). Infection can occur at any age, though most cases are recorded in children under four years old.

Teenagers up to age 19 are the next most vulnerable group.

Early symptoms of the disease may include:

Sudden onset of high fever

A severe and worsening headache (without any other obvious cause)

Severe neck stiffness

Dislike of bright lights (photophobia)

Very cold hands and feet

Drowsiness that can deteriorate into a fever

A rash that does not fade when pressed with a glass (due to bleeding under the skin).

Babies with meningococcal disease tend to be irritable when picked up and have a high pitched cry, stiff body and jerking movements.

“The symptoms are not always present and this can be a problem, particularly in identifying the disease in babies and very young children. If a baby is obviously ill or distressed, parents should seek medical help immediately. Don’t take a chance with a child’s health,” Professor Syed added.

Further information on meningococcal infection is available from:

The Meningitis Trust on 0800 028 18 28 or at .

Meningitis Research Foundation on 0808 800 3344 or .

NHS Direct, the 24-hour nurse advice and health information service on 0845 4647.