After a total of 47 deaths and 707 cases of meningitis from the fall 2012 outbreak, the disease was suddenly not so rare anymore. Affected patients, hospitals, and health insurance companies are still struggling to bounce back from the unanticipated influx of the fatal fungal infection.
The outbreak was caused by a compounding pharmacy who mass-produced an infected batch of injectable steroids and sold them to 76 medical facilities nationwide.
Clinicians continue to battle hundreds of cases of meningitis and discover more cases, though the outbreak is finally slowing. This multi-state scare was a reminder that rare, unexpected illnesses like meningitis still loom.
West Nile Virus, spread through mosquitoes, was another recent cause of meningitis in the United States. As its origins were viral, West Nile meningitis was a more common form of the illness than the fungal outbreak. The probability of developing a more severe form of West Nile (encephalitis, meningitis, or meningoencephalitis) was one in 150 cases.
Intro to Meningitis
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes encompassing the brain and spinal cord. The swelling is triggered when another part of the body has an infection that spreads through the blood into the cerebrospinal fluid, the liquid that surrounds the brain and is stored in the spinal cord. Though it is rare, it can affect people of all ages. Meningitis can occur in various forms: fungal (as with the current outbreak), bacterial, or viral. Viruses and bacteria are the most common cause of meningitis, though other organisms (fungi, parasites, tumors, chemicals) can enter the blood and cause meningitis, as well. Additionally, meningitis can result from head trauma, reactions to medications, or certain types of cancer and disease.
A case of viral meningitis results from exposure to viruses like enteroviruses, usually present in the warmer months. They are highly contagious and can be caught by something as simple as touching a surface someone infected has touched, like a cold or flu virus. Thriving in the digestive tract, enteroviruses are able to rapidly replicate there, and spread to become meningitis through the blood.
Bacterial meningitis is more potentially destructive than its viral counterpart, as it can lead to brain impairment and death in certain cases. Bacterial infections that are the most prone to causing meningitis in young adults and adults include Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae, the latter of which is the leading cause of adult meningitis in America. Once you begin an antibiotic to prevent meningitis, the bacterial infection is still contagious for a minimum of 24 hours. These infections travel only through throat and respiratory secretions, which can be exposed through contact such as kissing or coughing. Lyme disease is another cause of bacterial meningitis, though once it develops into meningitis, it is considered less harmful than other forms of the bacterial infection and does not cause death.
Both viral and bacterial meningitis cause a variety of abnormal symptoms, which are mostly alike as the meninges and nervous system are affected in a similar way. As such, it can be hard to diagnose whether you have one or the other until you are tested by a doctor. A few symptoms shared by the two most common forms of meningitis include:
- Intense drowsiness
- Light sensitivity
- Neck stiffness
For bacterial meningitis, antibiotics are prescribed based on the bacteria that started the infection. Doctors will run tests in order to determine which type of meningitis you have and if bacterial, which strain of bacteria. Testing for meningitis includes a spinal tap, and may also require blood cultures, CT scans, and chest X-rays. Herpes meningitis, caused by the herpes virus, can be treated with antiviral medication, though other viruses cannot be treated. Viral meningitis will typically disappear on its own, and treatment will involve rest, and potentially medication for headache and body pains.
How Health Insurance Can Help
Meningitis is clearly a serious condition. If a bacterial infection of the meninges goes untreated, you may suffer long-term damage or risk death. Regardless of which type you have, meningitis will be costly to properly diagnose and treat without coverage. With a health plan, you have access to a network of doctors who can perform necessary tests for an affordable cost, sometimes even for a copay. In addition to office visits and testing, follow-up visits are also likely to occur.
Getting diagnosed is essential to meningitis recovery, and spinal taps typically have multiple costs associated with them. The first charge is a technical fee, to cover performing the test. The professional fee is the second charge, which goes to the specialist who conducted and read the test. If lab work was performed on the fluid removed during the spinal tap, this may also result in a separate charge. According to the Healthcare Blue Book, the procedure fee for a lumbar puncture is $353 when paying in cash, though it varies by region. Prepare for triple that price, and you’ll get the potential total for every part of the service.
With coverage, you can either pay that out-of-pocket amount to reduce your deductible balance, or pay a flat rate for the service. If you were a California resident with an HMO plan from Kaiser Permanente, for example, an outpatient laboratory procedure would cost $10, which sounds much safer. Always check your health plan’s outline of benefits before receiving care so you have an idea of what coverage to expect.
1. Michael Smith. MedPage Today. Meningitis Outbreak Still a Challenge.
2. Adam Kerlin. MedlinePlus. Meningitis, West Nile occupy U.S. health officials in 2012.
3. FamilyDoctor.org. Meningitis.
4. PubMed Health. Meningitis.
5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. West Nile Virus.