LAYTON -- A local physician says there is an immune deficiency disorder that may predispose some people to meningeal infections, especially the severe bacterial type like the one that claimed the life of a Syracuse boy in January.
Dr. Douglas Jones, of Rocky Mountain Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, said there is a component of the immune system called the complement system, which is made up of approximately 25 proteins that work together to complement the action of antibodies that work to destroy bacteria. It is a complex system with many components, and people can be deficient in certain components of the system.
"These components include proteins and factors called C5-C9, properdin, Factor D and Factor H," Jones said.
People without spleens or with spleens that don't function correctly are at risk.
"So if a person has a deficiency in one of these components, they are predisposed to getting the illness," Jones said.
An international study done by the Imperial College of London found that differences in genetic composition could explain why some people are more likely to contract meningococcal meningitis than others.
Researchers analyzed the DNA of more than 6,000 people and found those who were at increased risk had some type of deficiency in the complement system. When the invading bacteria enters the body they can gain the ability to cover themselves in Factor H proteins, making them undetectable to the human immune system. Once they invade, they begin to multiply and cause disease.
According to the study, Factor H abnormalities can be detected through a simple blood test performed by an immunologist.
The test is highly recommended for people who have had meningitis two times or more or for those who have repeated or severe infections such as bronchitis, sinusitis, pneumonia or ear infections, Jones said.
"Sometimes people do have tragedy strike, but in some cases there may be an identifiable reason as to why it occurred," Jones said. "Immune deficiencies are more common than people realize. There are over 150 different kinds of immune system disorders."
While preventive measures are debatable right now, Jones said monthly penicillin injections are an option.
Meningitis is caused by the inflammation of protective membranes, called meninges, that cover the brain and spinal cord. The bacteria that cause meningococcal disease are common and live naturally at the back of the nose and throat.
"Meningitis can be either viral or bacterial," Jones said. "Symptoms include fever, headache, altered mental status, stiff neck and sensitivity to light."
Bacterial meningitis is more serious and tends to strike young, previously healthy individuals, Jones said. The disease can progress over a matter of hours and lead to death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, some forms of bacterial meningitis are contagious and can spread through coughing, sneezing and kissing.
According to the Utah Department of Health's epidemiology website, there were 10 reported cases of bacterial meningitis from December 2010 to November 2011. In the U.S., approximately 1,200 people are infected each year. Even when treated with antibiotics, 10 to 15 percent of those people will die. Of those who live, 11 to 19 percent lose their arms or legs, have trouble with their nervous system and suffer from seizures and stroke.
Because adolescents from ages 16 to 21 have the highest rates of the disease, it's important for them to be vaccinated. The Weber-Morgan Health Department recommends that all 11- and 12-year-olds should be vaccinated, with a booster dose given between the ages of 16 and 18.
There also is a vaccine available for children beginning at the age of 9 months who have complement deficiencies.