I remember going to the doctor as a child with complaints of a sore neck. My doctor examined me as my mother held her breath. “Don’t worry, it’s not meningitis” the doctor confirmed. My mother breathed again and squeezed my arm as colour returned to her cheeks.
Even as a nine year old I understood that meningitis was the deadly one and a disease that caused parents’ hearts to leap at 100 miles a minute. Although the rate of people dying from meningitis has diminished in the last number of years, it is still feared as it can attack anyone at anytime
Charities and people who have been affected by meningitis are urging the public to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the illness following the death of a UCC student in February.20 year old Arts student Grainne O’ Donnell from Cahir, Co. Tipperary died following a short battle with meningitis.
What is meningitis?
Meningitis is the inflammation of the lining around the spinal cord caused by a bacterial or viral infection. According to Caroline Krieger, Medical Officer of the Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF), meningitis often occurs with septicaemia which has a higher fatality rate.
“Meningitis occurs when toxins get into the immune system but when these toxins get into the blood they produce septicaemia. 1 in 10 people will die if they develop septicaemia while 1 in 3 survivors will be left with life-changing side-effects such as limb loss” says Caroline.
While a stiff neck and rash are the symptoms people normally associate with meningitis, many symptoms are shared with common, everyday illnesses which makes it more difficult to detect. According to Caroline it is important to be aware of the more specific symptoms that trigger meningitis in order to catch it early and that often no rash occurs until it is too late to treat it.
“Severe vomiting, fever and headache or dislike to bright lights are some of the symptoms that meningitis produces or becoming very vacant or confused, along with uneven breathing”
“Septicaemia produces muscle pain and often the sufferer has cold hands and feet but their torso is warm. A rash doesn’t appear until late and sometimes people are already being treated in hospital for meningitis before septicaemia develops” explains Caroline.
A Survivor’s Story
In April 2000 Ann-Marie Flanagan was a third year student studying in Sligo IT when she developed meningitis. Already a sufferer of migraines, Ann-Marie wasn’t particularly alarmed when she developed a severe headache during her Easter Break. Her brother was also enduring the effects of the vomiting bug so when Ann-Marie began vomiting she believed that she had caught her brother’s flu and didn’t suspect meningitis until her symptoms rapidly deteriorated.
“Everyone told me that I had the 24-hour vomiting bug and that I’d just have to sit it out. I could feel it getting worse. I was getting weaker and more tired and had a sore neck. By the time I got to Ballinasloe Hospital I was totally disoriented and in and out of consciousness. I’d an excruciating headache and my legs were like jelly” remembers Ann-Marie.
Although Ann-Marie managed to survive without any physical side-effects, the aftermath of her battle with the illness took an emotional toll on the young woman.
“In hindsight I probably went back to college too quickly after it. It was definitely a year of panic attacks and anxiety after it and not retaining information” explains Ann-Marie who has been working full-time with meningitis charity ACT for Meningitis since 2013.
A Parent’s Story
In November 2012 Mags Smart dropped her six month old baby Ruairí to crèche. She was planning her family trip to England which was due to take place in the coming days, yet when she got the phone call that Ruairí had not eaten his lunch she was taken aback as he was always “a big eater”. In typical meningitis fashion Ruairí’s symptoms didn’t appear until it was too late to act.
“He became more lethargic so we brought him to the hospital where the team acted really swiftly but it was about 9 or 10 o’clock that evening that Ruairí deteriorated. Wexford General didn’t have an ICU so he was transferred to Temple Street the next morning, but died later that day” says Mags.
Ruairí’s form of meningitis wasn’t covered in the vaccination scheme, a fact which surprised Mags at the time as she thought all strains of meningitis were covered.
“92 strains are covered but Ruairí’s wasn’t covered. You think your kids are protected but you don’t realise and you like to think you’re educated so there was that feeling of stupidity afterwards. To me meningitis was an old disease because I thought the vaccines covered everything”
According to MSF meningitis is the biggest killer of under five year old’s in Ireland and is not surprisingly the most feared illness amongst parents of young children. Although a vaccine was introduced by Minister Simon Harris in 2016 to protect against meningitis B for infants born on or after October 1 2016, Siobhan Carroll of ACT said that it is not fair that some infants in a family will be able to get the vaccine but their siblings may not.
Know your instincts
Siobhan Carroll set up Act for Meningitis in response to her daughter Aoibhe dying of the illness in 2008 at the young age of four. The charity promotes awareness of the condition and launched a beermat campaign to raise awareness of the symptoms amongst students.
There’s not one person in the world that doesn’t need to know about meningitis and you can get it more than once. It presents as the worst hangover in the world. You know your own body, be assertive and if ringing a doctor tell them that you suspect this person has meningitis” urges Siobhan.
ACT provides support services for people who have been affected by meningitis including counselling, family days, play therapy and home visits. Siobhan explains how she never wants a parent to suffer the same turmoil that she and her husband have experienced following the death of their beloved daughter.
“Within six hours of being sick my little girl had gone. If we had more information my husband often wonders if Aoibhe could’ve survived. We are not here to scare people, we just want to raise awareness that it can strike at any time, so know your instincts”