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Will's Story - Meningococcal disease

Suleikha Ali discusses the dangers of Meningococcal disease and the tragic consequences if not identified early enough.

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    Suleikha is a solicitor who works with Nicola Wainwright in a wide range of cases involving clinical negligence arising from birth injuries affecting mothers and children, meningitis claims as well as assisting bereaved families at inquests.
    Will (not his real name) was 7 years old when he died from meningococcal sepsis.

    He'd been at football practice when he began to feel unwell. He complained of feeling very cold. That evening he started to shake and his teeth were chattering.

    Will complained of a severe headache and had a fever. His father gave him Calpol for the fever, but when Will’s temperature and headache did not settle over the next few hours an ambulance was called.

    Will was taken by ambulance to the A&E department of his local hospital. Whilst in the ambulance he was recorded as having a temperature of 40.5 degrees.

    He was seen in A&E in the early hours of the next morning and remained there for the rest of the night. During the next 8 hours Will had a very high temperature of 39 degrees or more despite being given two doses of ibuprofen and one dose of paracetamol.

    He vomited twice and his blood results revealed that he had a significantly low white blood cell count and low neutrophil count, which are signs of infection.

    Will’s Mum recalls that at one stage Will was delirious and was unable to recognise her and that his legs were painful when she tried to help put his socks on.

    She recalls specifically asking the doctors if Will had meningitis but being reassured by the doctors as Will did not have a rash.

    The doctors reviewed Will on the morning after he was brought in. He was recorded as having a temperature of 37.1 degrees. This was the first time that Will’s temperature was recorded as being less than 39 degrees.

    The doctors told Will’s parents that he probably had a viral infection. Will’s parents were reassured and Will was discharged home.

    His parents were advised to watch out for a non-blanching rash or photophobia and were advised to seek urgent medical attention if these occurred.

    Will went back to his father’s house and remained there until his Mum collected him that afternoon. When she arrived to pick Will up she noticed that he had rapidly spreading purpuric rash covering his back and legs.

    She immediately took him back to the hospital. On arrival at hospital Will was taken immediately to resuscitation, as he was no longer breathing by himself.

    The doctors told Will’s Mum that they suspected that Will had meningococcal sepsis.

    Unfortunately, Will deteriorated throughout the night and sadly on medical advice from the doctors his Mum made the decision to switch off his life support systems at 6.30 the following morning.

    Despite his parents’ best efforts to ensure Will received prompt treatment and the fact he was in hospital for 8 hours the hospital doctors did not realise that Will had meningococcal disease, a serious bacterial infection which needed prompt treatment.

    He died from meningococcal septicaemia approximately 36 hours after he had been playing football as usual with his friends.

    Meningococcal disease is a life-threatening infection and is the term used to describe two major illnesses, meningitis and septicaemia which can either occur on their own or more commonly, both together.

    Meningococcal septicaemia occurs when the Meningococcus bacteria enters the blood causing a severe infection. The bacterium multiplies in the blood while releasing endotoxins (poisons). These endotoxins cause damage to the blood vessels and stop the vital flow of oxygen to the organs including the skin and underlying tissues.

    There are approximately 1,500 reported cases of meningococcal disease each year in the UK. Around 7% of cases will result in death. Of those who survive, 15% will be left with severe and disabling after-effects such as loss of hearing, loss of sight and brain damage.

    Meningococcal disease requires urgent treatment with antibiotics and rapid admission to hospital. If treated promptly, it is less likely to become life-threatening.

    Will did not have a rash until the later stages of his illness, he also did not develop neck stiffness or photophobia, the symptoms many, including the doctors who saw him, look out for when thinking meningococcal.

    Many patients do not present with those symptoms and their absence should not be falsely reassuring.

    The charity Meningitis Now publish signs and symptoms checkers which could literally save lives so please have a look at their website here.

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