Neonatal Meningitis

Meningitis is a very serious and often life-threatening infection that occurs in about 300-400 of every 100,000 live births. It is an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord. The most common cause of meningitis in the United States is Group B Streptococcus, but it is also sometimes caused by Listeria and E. coli. A spinal tap is performed in order to diagnose meningitis, but it is such a serious threat to newborn health that medical professionals will often begin treatment in suspected cases of meningitis before an official diagnosis is made. Meningitis is treated with antibiotics or antiviral medications, depending on whether it is caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Infants with meningitis also require supportive care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). If treated quickly and appropriately, infants with meningitis may make a full recovery. However, if treatment is delayed or improper, neonatal meningitis can result in serious disabilities such as cerebral palsy, seizure disorders, developmental disabilities, and vision and hearing impairments.

Group B Strep Is The Most Common Cause Of Neonatal Meningitis

The causes of meningitis are mostly bacterial, although there are some cases of viral and fungal meningitis. In the U.S., 50% of all neonatal bacterial meningitis cases are due to group B Streptococcus. Other bacterial causes include E coli (which accounts for about 20% of cases) and Listeria monocytogenes (which accounts for 5-10% of cases).

Perhaps the reason that so many meningitis cases are attributed to group B strep is the prevalence of the infection. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 10-30% of pregnant women are infected with group B strep. If the mother is not diagnosed prenatally and properly treated, there is a risk of transmission of group B strep – and ultimately meningitis – to the infant. Because of this, all pregnant women should be tested for group B strep in the third trimester. If the tests come back positive, healthcare providers must administer antibiotics during labor to minimize the risk of transmission.

Symptoms And Treatment Of Meningitis In Newborns

The following signs indicate that a newborn may have meningitis:

  • Irritability
  • Trouble breathing
  • Poor feeding or refusal to feed
  • Bulging fontanelle (the soft spot at the top of the baby’s head)
  • Diarrhea or vomiting
  • Abnormal body temperature
  • Seizures  

Because meningitis can be fatal, once it is suspected doctors must begin treatment with antimicrobial drugs immediately. Delays may cause significant, irreversible damage. A lumbar puncture (spinal tap) is done to confirm meningitis. Other treatments include IV fluids and anticonvulsant medicine (if the newborn is having seizures). Medical professionals can monitor the infant’s intracranial pressure and evaluate them for cerebral abscesses (masses in the brain from the infection) or hydrocephalus (an excess of cerebrospinal fluid, which can lead to head swelling and serious brain injury if improperly managed).


Outcomes following a meningitis infection vary from complete recovery to severe neurological deficits. A study of 1,500 five-year-old children diagnosed with meningitis at birth found the following long-term effects:

Another study found a 25% mortality rate for group B strep meningitis cases. Moreover, 25-30% of children developed major neurological problems (spastic quadriplegia, profound cognitive impairments, hemiparesis, deafness, and cortical blindness), while 15-20% had mild-moderate neurological deficits.

Legal Help for Neonatal Meningitis and Birth Injuries

If group B strep – or any other infection – is not diagnosed and properly treated in a pregnant woman, it can be transmitted to the infant.

If your child was diagnosed with meningitis at birth, the attorneys at Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers can help. We have the knowledge and professional experience to thoroughly examine the complex medical records of your child’s case, determine whether there was an error or negligence, and help you obtain the monetary compensation your child deserves. Free of charge and obligations, we will answer your legal questions, determine the negligent party, and inform you of your legal options. Our team is available to speak with you to set up an appointment in any of the following ways:

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