Advising with empathy and experience

Meningitis awareness call.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has called for greater awareness about the symptoms of meningitis after a teenage schoolgirl died from a suspected case of the infection after being discharged from hospital.

Bristol schoolgirl, Isabel Gentry, 16, was taken to Bristol Royal Infirmary by ambulance after starting to feel unwell when revising for her AS examinations but was allowed home hours later.

University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Bristol Royal Infirmary, said it believes the assessment and treatment she received were "appropriate" as initial symptoms were "not typical of meningitis" and Isabel was discharged after a five-hour observation in the accident and emergency department.

She died two days later at Bristol Royal Infirmary after blood tests revealed she had bacterial meningitis, a dangerous stand of the disease.

Speaking about the case, Mr Hunt said the schoolgirl’s death was the realisation of every parent's "biggest fear" but assured the public that the UK is a world-leader in meningitis diagnosis.

He said: "Situations like this are the most appalling tragedies and one of the biggest fears that parents have.

"We have some of the best internationally recognised meningitis screening programmes and are the only country in the world with a MenB immunisation programme. Our doctors and nurses do a pretty good job – but not always. We could always do more to ensure awareness is higher."

Mr Hunt said parents should clue themselves up on what to look for when it came to illnesses such as meningitis and sepsis.

"We need the public to understand the symptoms of these diseases. With something like sepsis for example, if a child has a repeated fever, that is a potential warning sign. If a child has some cold spells as well as hot spells, that is a potentially worrying sign. The more we can educate the public about this, the better."

University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust’s chief operating officer, Deborah Lee, said an initial investigation into Izzy's death had not revealed any shortcomings in the "assessment, care or treatment given at the time of her presentation".

She said: "Izzy's symptoms were not typical of meningitis at the time of first presentation and we believe that both the assessment and treatment were appropriate. Sadly, we cannot bring Izzy back but will do our very best to see if there is any learning for ourselves or others that could prevent such a tragedy happening again."

Viral infections are the most common cause of meningitis, followed by bacterial infections and, rarely, fungal infections. Because bacterial infections can be life-threatening, identifying the cause is essential.

According to the NHS Choices website, a classic symptom of meningitis is a rash that usually initially looks like small, red pinpricks which spreads over the body quickly and turns into red or purple blotches.

The advice adds: “If you press the side of a clear glass firmly against the skin and the rash doesn't fade, it's a sign of blood poisoning caused by meningitis and you should get medical advice right away.

“The rash can be harder to see on dark skin. Check for spots on paler areas like the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, the tummy, inside the eyelids, and the roof of the mouth.”

Meningitis can also have a number of other symptoms including a high temperature (fever) over 37.5C (99.5F); feeling and being sick, irritability and a lack of energy, a headache, aching muscles and joints, breathing quickly, cold hands and feet, pale, mottled skin and a stiff neck, confusion, a dislike of bright lights, drowsiness and  fits. 

NHS Choices adds: “You should get medical advice as soon as possible if you're concerned about yourself or your child. Trust your instincts and don't wait until a rash develops. Call 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department if you think you or your child might be seriously ill.”