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What are the warning signs of childhood meningitis? As Jimmy Carr reveals he almost died as a child


Comedian Jimmy Carr said he was “close to death” as a young child, after being diagnosed with meningitis.

During an interview on the podcast Where There’s A Will, There’s A Wake with Kathy Burke, the 51-year-old shared that he was treated for the disease in hospital in Ireland as a toddler and “nearly didn’t make it”.

“You’ve got to be cruel to be kind … I think that is the first thing I ever said that my mother thought was funny,” he said.

“I had meningitis when I was a child. So my first memory is a lumbar puncture in Limerick in the General (hospital). I was three, I think, and … I was always told it was very close to death.

“The doctor sort of went, ‘It’s going to be very painful’. And somehow I’d heard the phrase, and I went, ‘You’ve got to be cruel to be kind’, in a little child’s voice.”

Carr added: “And I kind of appreciated that thing of life, because I was always told, ‘Oh, you nearly didn’t make it’.”

So, what exactly is childhood meningitis and what warning signs should parents and carers look out for?What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an infection affecting the brain, explains Dr Stuart Sanders, GP at The London General Practice.

“It can be caused by bacteria, most commonly due to meningococcus – this is the most serious infection, others include pneumococcus, tuberculosis or haemophilus bacteria, for example,” said Sanders.

“Meningitis can also be caused by a number of viruses including enteric, mumps or herpes viruses; these are usually less serious. Very occasionally, a fungus might be the cause, but it would not present as an acute illness.”

What are the warning signs of meningitis?Symptoms can include a high temperature, headache, neck stiffness, photophobia (dislike of light), nausea and sometimes vomiting.

“There may be a fine skin rash that does not blanche on compression with a drinking glass,” Sanders added. “Confusion, sleepiness or convulsions can also occur. Babies and small children may present with non-specific symptoms, but neck stiffness is almost always present.

“Meningitis is very contagious. The infecting organism usually lives in the nose and/or the throat so the infection is spread by coughing, sneezing or close contact.”

How is meningitis diagnosed and treated?

“Meningitis can be a very serious illness and the patient must be taken to hospital for confirmation of the diagnosis and treatment as quickly as possible because patients, particularly children, can deteriorate with alarming speed,” said Sander.

There should be an urgent admission to hospital where blood tests, throat swabs and a lumbar puncture to examine the spinal fluid can all be conducted.

“Other investigations are advised where the patient is not improving. Then intravenous antibiotics are given urgently as soon as immediate tests for infection have been completed.”

In serious cases, children may go into “clinical shock”, Sanders added – in which case “life support measures will be introduced, such as fluid infusions, steroid medicines or oxygen”.

He continued: “Sometimes complications can cause death or brain damage, the outcome is linked to the part of the brain involved, the severity of the infection, and possible effects of linked conditions such as dehydration or septicaemia.”

How can you prevent meningitis?

Meningitis is included in the NHS children’s vaccination programme, so it’s important to stay updated with these and ask your doctor if unsure.

Sanders says small children, patients with coexisting illness or infection, and anyone who has not received their meningitis vaccine are most at risk of meningitis.

“A further issue is that diagnosis of meningitis in infants and children is often difficult because their presenting symptoms and signs may be unusual,” he added. “Meningococcus, pneumococcus and haemophilus vaccines are advised as an integral part of the NHS infant and children vaccination program.”

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