What is Encephalitis?
Encephalitis means that the substance of the brain has become infected. As with meningitis, the germs may come from other areas being conveyed by the bloodstream. The range is almost limitless, and may include many of the common viruses that produce the well-known infectious disorders of childhood.
At some stage nearly all have been involved, such as rubella, measles, mumps, chickenpox, glandular fever, and even cold sores. In fact, this fellow, called the herpes virus, may produce a life threatening form of encephalitis.
Rarely, some cases have developed after vaccination for whooping cough, but this is almost unheard of in Australia, and is certainly not a reason to forgo this valuable protective injection in infancy. If it is not caused by a germ, toxins circulating in the blood may be the troublemaker.
Judging from some of the relatively simple infections, the brain seems to be a sitting target for some of the apparently innocuous viral infections when they turn around and go mad.
In fact, many specific viruses, such as measles, mumps and the herpes viruses are relatively innocuous provided they remain confined to certain regions. Symptoms are often minimal and of relatively short duration. But every now and again they break loose, and rush off to the brain. Here they may produce extremely serious and even fatal consequences.
The HIV, the germ responsible for AIDS, has a special predilection for the brain tissue, and rapidly, and often at an early stage, crosses over from the bloodstream into the brain tissue, causing a terrible disease that usually results in dementia and death. Added gradually, then rapidly loses normal comprehension, and the typical symptoms of dementia become rapidly established.
AZT (Retrovir) is the only current drug used for AIDS treatment, and its early and vigorous use is claimed to give some temporary improvement in the patient’s cognitive processes. But inevitably, as with AIDS in general, this is only palliative, and rapid deterioration and death are the usual outcome.
Often a headache is the starting point. There may be nausea and vomiting. Irritability in babies and infants may be the only outward sign of a headache. Baby has no other way of communicating. There may be loss of appetite, and any food taken may be vomited back. There may be stiffness of the neck, and discomfort with certain movements. Gradually lethargy and apparent sleepiness may take over. Sometimes there may be convulsive movements, and the patient may slip into a coma and be totally unconscious. In severe instances death may occur.
The earliest symptoms are often a headache, frequently with nausea and vomiting. At a very early age, the headache may be characterized by irritability like myelitis, or infantile paralysis, a viral infection of the spinal cord and nerves, and general restlessness. Lack of interest in food, nausea and vomiting may be the first indications to the mother that something is wrong.
Often the brain lining is also affected. This is revealed by a neck and back stiffness or even rigidity. If any of these symptoms follow on from a seemingly simple general infection (such as measles or mumps, or cold sore infections, especially of the vulval area in infants), then the risks of it being a brain infection are more obvious.
Lethargy, loss of consciousness and convulsions are the hard core of symptoms. These are the red lights, the real danger signals that all is not well, and that prompt action is essential. Like right away, not tomorrow.
Immediate medical attention is essential. The sooner this takes place, the better. As a start, see your own family doctor, who will probably refer you to the nearest big hospital. There’s no place for home therapy with this dangerous disease.
Treatment will depend on the nature of the organism causing the infection. For some, there is no appropriate antibiotic. Indeed this is the case for most virus induced diseases. Fortunately, a drug has been devised for herpes viruses, and this may be lifesaving. It saved the life of my 11-year-old, and she has totally recovered.
But treatment will be carried out to the best possible advantage of the patient in hospital.
The main point, of course, is to alert parents to the possibilities. Please do not delay with any serious symptom.
Any mother when confronted with symptoms of this nature will seek prompt medical help. The sooner the child is examined and transferred to a hospital with facilities to diagnose and treat the better. Apart from a few simple remedies any mother might try in the early stages when faced with a childhood fever, there is no place for home remedies with illnesses such as this, and with symptoms we have outlined.
Convulsions, loss of consciousness, high fevers, need expert attention. Never neglect a child with symptoms of this nature. Get to a doctor or hospital urgently.