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World Hearing Day: Bacterial meningitis is a leading cause of acquired hearing loss

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

Did you know that 5% to 35% of patients with bacterial meningitis will develop permanent sensorineural hearing loss?

This year, WHO has outlined the theme for World Hearing Day which focuses ‘on the importance of safe listening as a means of maintaining good hearing’ over the course of a lifetime. Among WHO’s four key messages for the campaign, one important point that we talk about is that many common causes of hearing loss can be prevented.

It goes without saying that frequent exposure to loud sounds will likely result in a reduced capacity to hear and so we can prevent that through ‘safe listening’. But what about hearing loss brought on by other factors like preventable infections? Looking after our ears therefore also involves raising awareness of preventable infections like bacterial meningitis.

lips move in silence
my eyes fill in for my ears
visual hearing

- Haiku by Wendy Kast.

Silent communication, or ‘visual hearing’ as described by Wendy Kast in the haiku above, conveys how rich communication does not always have to be verbal. Wendy Kast writes on life with hearing loss and is now a bilateral cochlear implant user. She grew up as partially Deaf but later lost hearing in her functioning ear rendering her almost entirely Deaf. This was caused by sensorineural Deafness, also known as nerve Deafness, which describes hearing loss in the inner part of the ear. While meningitis wasn’t the cause of Wendy’s progressive hearing loss, bacterial meningitis is known to cause sensorineural Deafness, which is permanent. According to a study on bacterial meningitis in children carried out in 2021,

Bacterial meningitis is a devastating infection, with a case fatality rate up of up to 30 and 50% of survivors developing neurological complications. These include […] long term complications such as hearing loss, seizures, cognitive impairment and hydrocephalus.

It can take time to adapt to life after meningitis. Follow-up appointments after meningitis is key to developing a tailored rehabilitation plan.

Over the years, measures to defeat meningitis have focused largely on a medical model, prioritising prevention, diagnosis and treatment. However, with 5 million new cases of meningitis each year and 1 in 5 survivors living with long-term after effects, we need a paradigm shift in how we think about meningitis. This needs to include the recognition of the long-term after effects and consequences of the disease because so many people are affected each year.

With hearing loss being a common after effect for children who have experienced bacterial meningitis, early identification and rehabilitation will lessen the long-term educational and social challenges that they may face. This is why we emphasise the importance of support and aftercare for individuals and families adjusting to life post-meningitis. Catching the early signs of after effects like hearing loss will allow for a more tailored approach to rehabilitation, reducing the educational, social, emotional and physical implications of experiencing diseases like meningitis. Likewise, raising awareness about the signs and symptoms, and advocating for the vaccination against meningitis, will prevent children from ever having to suffer the severity of meningitis after effects, particularly important as hearing loss is just one of the many after effects that may result from contracting meningitis.

Madeleine, the daughter of Barnplantorna’s president, Ann-Charlotte, contracted haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) as a young child and lost her hearing as a result. In the time immediately following Madeleine’s experience of meningitis, Ann-Charlotte reports that she struggled walking and was generally extremely frustrated and angry. After some time passed, Madeleine became able to walk again but remained very angry and nobody could understand why. It wasn’t until 3 weeks after the birth of her baby sister that tests confirmed that Madeleine was Deaf.

So we had a deaf and very depressed child who did not want us to comb her hair and did not want to look at herself in the mirror. She followed me everywhere, becoming hysterical if she could not see me. She relied on all visual clues to try to solve what was happening around her. It was hard. My worst moment was when she put her hands over her ears, took them away and nodded her little head.

One year following Madeleine’s experience with meningitis, the vaccine against haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) was introduced onto the Swedish vaccination programme. While the introduction of the Hib vaccine protects more children from ever experiencing meningitis, there’s still more that needs to be done as bacterial meningitis remains the most common cause of acquired postnatal sensorineural Deafness. Raising awareness about the symptoms, treatment and prevention of meningitis can help reduce the risk of partial, progressive and complete hearing loss as an after effect of meningitis.

To hear for life, listen with care to our message: defeating meningitis is something we can all do! By accessing and sharing this information, you can help us to achieve WHO’s goal of defeating meningitis by 2030; consequently, this will serve to reduce the risk of hearing impairment caused by bacterial meningitis.

Motivated to get involved in defeating meningitis? Maybe you would be interested in joining our network of meningitis organisations and advocates. You can learn more about membership on our website.

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