Babies who survive an attack of meningitis have a tenfold higher risk than normal of developing disabilities later in life, a study has found.

Babies who survive an attack of meningitis have a tenfold higher risk than normal of developing disabilities later in life, a study has found.

The disease, which can kill or maim in hours by attacking the brain, blood and vital organs, leaves a legacy of damage that may only emerge in later years, research has shown.

Meningitis is most common in children under one and a study of 1,584 infants who contracted the disease before their first birthday has revealed that 247 ­ more than one in seven ­ developed severe or moderate disabilities by their fifth birthday. The affected children had a range of problems including cerebral palsy, fits, learning difficulties and problems with vision, hearing and speech. Six children were blind, 29 were deaf and 55 had "severe communication problems".

In a control group of 1,391 children who did not catch meningitis, 21 had moderate or severe disabilities by the age of five ­ one in 66.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, is a follow-up to an earlier study made of the incidence of meningitis in England and Wales between 1985 and 1987. Two per cent of those who survived the initial attack later died.

The survivors also had a higher incidence of mild disorders such as middle ear disease, squint and behavioural problems, with more than 29 per cent affected compared with less than 20 per cent of the control group. The research was done by asking GPs and parents of the children in both groups to complete a health questionnaire.

Helen Bedford and colleagues from the Institute of Child Health in London say the findings highlight the "serious consequences" of an attack of meningitis for the survivors. The highest rates of disability were among those who caught the disease before they were a month old.

There are several types of bacteria that cause meningitis and some were more damaging than others. The worst effects were associated with infection by Gram-negative bacteria, which left more than half of infant victims with moderate or severe disabilities.

Writing in the BMJ, Professor Keith Grimwood of the Wellington School of Medicine, New Zealand, says doctors should check not only vision and hearing after infection with meningitis but should also alert parents and teachers to the possibility of problems with language development and behaviour emerging later.

* Up to twice as many children in Britain as previously thought may have hearing difficulties, a study suggests. Researchers from the Medical Research Council's Institute of Hearing Research in Nottingham identified 17,000 children with permanent problems and calculated that, for every 10 children detected, as many as another nine would develop problems by the age of nine.