Meningitis is a very serious and very frightening infection affecting mainly young people. This week I raised the need for an annual meningitis awareness campaign and also the need for funding for organisations supporting impacted families.

I thank the Cathaoirleach’s office for picking this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State. It is great to see her back. Hopefully she will be back to flying form in the coming weeks and months.

I raise the issue of meningitis, meningitis awareness campaigns and supports for meningitis. Invasive meningococcal disease is the most common form of bacterial meningitis in Ireland, causing up to 90% of cases. The disease may present as meningitis, septicaemia or both. Meningitis is inflammation of the meninges, which is the covering layer of the brain and spinal cord. Septicaemia is a form of blood poisoning cased by the same organism that causes meningitis. Early symptoms can include fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pains, stomach cramps and cold hands and feet. The HSE advises not to wait for a rash if someone is ill and getting worse, but to get medical help immediately. One in ten people may carry the bacteria. Carriage of the bacteria increases with age. It is typically followed by development of immunity. Peak carriage may occur in the 15-and-19-years age group, of whom 25% are carriers, but it is also highly prevalent in small babies and young children.

The impact meningitis can have on a family is tremendous. It impacts small children, babies and young adults typically at the start of their college years or whatever. It can be a sudden loss for those involved. It is important that there be national awareness campaigns at local level, at schools and universities and across society so people are aware of the disease, who is most impacted and the symptoms.

Act for Meningitis is a national charity based in Galway. It aims to raise awareness and educate society about the signs and symptoms of meningitis, while offering free support services for those affected by the disease. These support services are tailored to the needs of the individual or the family to find the most appropriate and beneficial service for them. Act for Meningitis is a national charity, although it is based in Galway. It has been turned down for the scheme to support national organisations on nine occasions. It has applied to the HSE under different types of funding. It is so reliant on donations and events that impacted families might engage in. The support services it provides are hugely important for bereaved and impacted families. It needs a reliable source of funding to ensure its services continue. The organisation is 11 years in existence since last July. It has no sustainable income. Pre Covid, 68% of its income came from private fundraising and it is now down to 22%. It is looking for sustainable funding to ensure its valuable work in raising awareness nationally about this disease can continue, to keep the show on the road and provide supports for impacted families.

Deputy Mary Butler

I thank Senator Kyne for giving me the opportunity to speak to the issues around meningitis awareness and the supports provided. I am acutely conscious of some families that were recently bereaved, including the family of a beautiful young girl in my constituency. As I speak here today, I am very conscious of the families left behind.

The HSE has recently investigated a number of cases of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia. Meningitis is a serious illness involving inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by a variety of different germs, mainly bacterial infections and viruses. Bacterial meningitis, identified in recent cases, is less common but usually more serious than viral meningitis and requires urgent treatment with antibiotics. Bacterial meningitis may be also be accompanied by septicaemia or blood poisoning. These bacteria live naturally in the nose and throat of normal healthy persons without causing illness. The illness occurs most frequently in young children and adolescents, usually as isolated cases. Bacterial meningitis or septicaemia requires urgent antibiotic treatment.

In Ireland, most meningococcal infections occur in winter and early spring. Meningococcal disease may occur at any age but sporadic infection is most common in infancy and early childhood, with a second smaller peak of incidence in adolescents and young adults. The HSE advises that if people have any concerns, they should contact their GP in the first instance but ensure that medical expertise is sought quickly.

Vaccination plays a central role in disease prevention. The meningococcal B vaccine and the meningococcal C vaccine are offered to children in Ireland as part of the primary childhood immunisation programme. Protection against meningococcal C disease reduces over time so a booster dose is recommended for children in first year of secondary school, and age equivalent special school and home-schooled students, to provide additional protection against meningococcal C disease. It is vital that parents check that their children are up to date regarding the recommended vaccinations.

The HSE raises awareness around the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease and the importance of children receiving the available recommended meningococcal vaccines to protect them from the most common meningococcal disease in Ireland. World Meningitis Day takes place annually to help raise awareness around the disease. This year’s event took place on 5 October.

I take on board the Senator’s point about Act for Meningitis. We are all in agreement. I know it is a decision everyone makes for themselves but vaccination is so important. As children grow older, we have to be aware of the symptoms that can present. I have heard of Act for Meningitis. I will look into the reasons the organisation has been unsuccessful on so many occasions with regard to funding.

It is very hard to raise funds. Many organisations were very good at raising funds prior to Covid-19 but it has really challenged them recently. Sections 38 and 39 of the Health Act 2004 provide for the HSE to provide funding for agencies to deliver services on its behalf. There is, therefore, a funding stream in place. That includes funding across a range of care areas including a number of organisations that provide bereavement support services to families. All these details are available on the HSE website. I take on board the Senator’s point, however. These recent cases frightened many people; they are worried. People want a dedicated source of information at which they can look. I will certainly raise the issue with regard to Act for Meningitis.

Senator Seán Kyne

I thank the Minister of State for that response. We all unfortunately know of people who have suffered bereavements. As I said, it is heartbreaking for families because it happens so suddenly, particularly in young adults. The awareness is not just in that person but in his or her cohort. Their friends might say there is something wrong and it is serious and this person needs help. It can happen, and hours can be critical in diseases like this. I would certainly welcome if the Minister of State could take the issue of Act for Meningitis up with the relevant section in her Department. As I said, it has an office in the Ballybane area in Galway city. I would appreciate if she could get back to me regarding a sustainable source of funding if that is possible. The organisation does valuable work across the country.

Deputy Mary Butler

Further work on raising awareness is carried out by the National Immunisation Office and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre through the sharing of content on social media platforms and web pages. As we know, meningitis is also covered during the promotion of European Immunization Week in April every year. If the Senator does not mind, he might drop me a quick email with regard to this and I will certainly have it looked at through the Department. Volunteer organisations do a huge amount of work. It is very important that we try to support them as best we can. I will certainly have it looked at for the Senator.