Act fast to stop deaths when condition strikes

Anne and Stephen Dawson at home in Chapletown.
Anne and Stephen Dawson at home in Chapletown.
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Anne Dawson is well aware of the importance of getting help fast when meningitis strikes - after the condition claimed her father’s life and left her husband Steve seriously ill in hospital.

But Anne says that, in Steve’s case, the condition’s classic symptoms such as a rash and sensitivity to light were not present, meaning it was extremely difficult to diagnose at first.

The couple, from Chapeltown in Sheffield, are now supporting Meningitis Awareness Week, which starts today and aims to spread the word about the deadly disease.

Anne, aged 44, said: “Everyone needs to know the symptoms so they can seek medical help fast.”

Meningitis and septicaemia are estimated to affect around nine people in the UK and Ireland every day, killing one in 10 sufferers and leaving a quarter of survivors with life-altering after-effects, ranging from deafness and brain damage to loss of limbs.

Children under five and students are most at risk, but the diseases can strike at any age and not all forms are currently covered by vaccines.

Anne said it was ‘no surprise’ that retired accountant Steve, 50, developed meningitis five years ago, as his immune system had been weakened after beginning treatment for multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer.

“The surprise was how quickly he became ill with only a few of the ‘recognised’ symptoms,” said Anne, who works as a PA at a manufacturing firm and has an eight-year-old son, Joel, with Steve.

“He just started to feel poorly and couldn’t get out of bed. There was that would make someone think it was meningitis. He had none of the classic signs - no aversion to light, no rash - so it could have been anything.”

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, or protective membranes, that surround the brain and spinal cord. The infection causes the meninges to become inflamed, which in some cases can damage the brain.

There are two types of the disease - bacterial meningitis, which is spread through close contact, and viral meningitis, caused by a virus that can be spread through coughing, sneezing and poor hygiene.

The bacterial variety is considered a medical emergency - if left untreated, it can cause severe brain damage and infect the blood.

When Steve’s condition started to rapidly deteriorate Anne took him to the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, where his cancer was being treated.

“I managed to get him into a wheelchair and by the time I had parked the car he was virtually unconscious. He just went downhill so quickly.”

Medics managed to stabilise Steve’s condition and he survived the scare, with his cancer currently kept at bay.

But Anne said her dad, Cyril Rhodes, did not live to tell the tale after developing meningitis aged 67 in 1995.

Cyril had a blood disorder - hereditary spherocytosis - which meant his spleen, which acts as part of the immune system by filtering blood, needed to be removed during childhood.

“My father did actually recover to the point where could sit up in bed, but MRI scans showed quite a lot of damage to his brain cells and he slowly took a turn for the worse,” said Anne.

She added: “Meningitis doesn’t always follow a particular pattern and knowing what to look for is hard. It could be so many other things - that’s the difficulty.”

Christopher Head, chief executive of Meningitis Research Foundation, said: “Meningitis and septicaemia are diseases you never expect to happen, but Anne and Steve’s personal experience really brings home how devastating these diseases can be and why it’s so important to be aware of the symptoms and be prepared to act fast when loved ones, family and friends fall sick.”

Booster jabs aimed at new students

Vaccines have almost eliminated some types of meningitis, but not all of them. Children are currently vaccinated against Hib, meningitis C and 13 strains of pneumococcal meningitis.

A meningitis B vaccine - Bexsero - was recommended for infants in the UK in March 2014, and is available privately, but a timetable for implementation free of charge on the NHS is yet to be confirmed. The Government has also introduced a new meningitis C booster campaign aimed at students starting university. GPs are administering the vaccine free of charge until October 31. The campaign will be repeated every year until 2017. New students are at increased risk of encountering the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease because they are often living in busy halls of residence and in close contact with other new students during fresher’s week.

Students should get immunised at least two weeks before they go away to study. Visit www.meningitis.org for details.