Having witnessed the devastating impact that misdiagnosed illnesses can have on our clients and their families, I was sorry to read the tragic news of Isabel Gentry, a teenager who died of meningitis after being discharged from hospital despite her mother warning doctors she may have contracted the disease.
The 16-year-old was discharged from the Bristol Royal Infirmary and returned home, where her condition deteriorated. Isabel died in intensive care after an MRI scan revealed brain swelling had caused brain stem death.
Isabel’s case highlights the devastating effects of meningitis B. With timely detection and treatment the outcome would have been very different. Thankfully there is now a vaccine available for this condition, but unfortunately it is not yet available to all children. In the meantime, quick assessment and good advice is critical in preventing unnecessary deaths.
Senior coroner for Avon, Maria Voisin, said there was an "underestimation" of Isabel’s illness and a "gross failure" in the medical treatment she received which had contributed to her death. It is a parent’s worst nightmare for their child to fall ill with a disease like meningitis, but for medical professionals to fall short in their treatment it is inexcusable and avoidable.
Guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) advises that parents should be given clear information about symptoms of the illness and encourage observation so that they may act if they suspect the symptoms have become worse.
When a child is discharged from hospital, if a doctor believes them to be at low risk of meningococcal disease after an initial observation, parents should be advised to return to hospital if the child’s condition gets worse, even if this is shortly after being discharged. Guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) advises that parents should be given clear information about symptoms of the illness and encourage observation so that they may act if they suspect the symptoms have become worse.
An inquest heard that Isabel’s mother did everything she could in acting quickly and alerting doctors to a school letter that had been released warning that another pupil had recently suffered from meningitis. She had complained of a bad headache, vomiting and fainting while studying.
With early diagnosis and antibiotic treatment, most children make a full recovery, but it is fatal in one in 10 cases.
What Are The Symptoms of Meningitis?
Meningitis must be treated quickly to avoid septicaemia, life-threatening blood poisoning that can permanently damage the brain or nerves. It is caused by a bacterial or viral infection, which can be spread through sneezing, coughing, kissing and utensils such as toothbrushes and cutlery. Meningitis can affect anyone, but it is most common in babies, children and young adults. The NHS states that a common symptom of meningitis is a blotchy rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it, though this doesn't appear in all cases.
The symptoms of meningitis include:
- a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above
- nausea and vomiting
- a headache
- a blotchy rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it (this won't always develop)
- a stiff neck
- an aversion of bright lights
- drowsiness or unresponsiveness
If you are concerned that you or your child may have contracted meningitis, you should seek immediate medical attention at your nearest accident and emergency department. Don’t wait for a rash to develop.
Laura Cleevely is a clinical negligence solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.