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Risks of delayed diagnosis of septicaemia and meningitis

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    Parents of young children in particular need to be aware of the symptoms of the similar illnesses of meningitis and septicaemia because delay in seeking medical help can lead to serious disability or death.

    By Kerstin Kubiak

Following the merger of South West charities the Meningitis Trust and Meningitis UK in March 2013 under Chief Executive Sue Davie there has been a push to remind parents in the United Kingdom of the serious risks of viral and bacterial meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia and set out clear guides to the symptoms. Not all the symptoms may be present in babies or toddlers and can appear in any order.

SYMPTOMS

There are a number of non-specific and specific symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia.

Non-specific symptoms:
•   Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
•   Lethargy
•   Unsettled behaviour
•   Unhealthy appearance
•   Severe joint/muscle pains
•   Headache
•   Breathing difficulties
•   Fever

MENINGITIS:
•   Stiff neck
•   Photophobia
•   Seizure, stiff/jerky movements
•   Altered mental state/confusion

SEPTICAEMIA:
•   Cold extremities
•   Leg pain
•   Abnormal skin colour
•   Rash that does not fade when pressed
•   Altered mental state/confusion
•   Also bulging fontanelle, high pitched crying and poor feeding may be present in babies and toddlers.

Please note that you must consult with a doctor if you suspect illness (these symptoms are not exhaustive and not intended to constitute medical advice).

MATERIALS AVAILABLE

Updated awareness materials have been created by the Trust, including wallet-sized symptom cards, a downloadable symptoms chart and even fridge magnets, in addition to the usual detailed leaflets with the aim to getting this information widely available and more at the forefront of people’s minds and to seek medical advice as quickly as possible in the case of concern.

Dr Andrew Pollard a Consultant Paediatrician and spokesperson for the newly merged body emphasises: “Meningitis and meningococcal septicaemia can kill in hours, so minutes count. Having the symptoms to hand can save valuable time and give people the confidence to seek medical help.”

It is equally important that medical professionals also carefully examine symptoms with a patient and consider a possible diagnosis of meningitis, and make appropriate referrals as early as possible if there is any suspicion.  As medical negligence solicitors, we unfortunately see clients who have suffered injury and sometimes even the death of a loved one due to a delayed diagnosis of septicaemia where medical advice was sought by a patient but symptoms were put down to another less serious condition, and therefore we are fully aware of the importance of prompt treatment.

CASE EXAMPLE

An example from our own caseload (involving an adult) shows how vital it is that a prompt transfer to hospital takes place. Our client called out a locum GP twice: once in the afternoon and again at midnight. The GP failed to recognise that the 45 year old man was profoundly ill and instead diagnosed a viral infection.  During the early hours of the next morning he fell into a coma and was admitted to hospital where there was further delay before it was recognised that he was septic and, by the time a definitive diagnosis was made in the afternoon, the septicaemic infection had progressed to pneumococcal meningitis. Our client was lucky to survive but suffered profound deafness, memory impairment and the loss of his toes through necrosis.

It was alleged that there was GP negligence in failing to refer our client to hospital.  There was a considerable dispute between the client and his girlfriend and the locum GP about what symptoms were described and what signs were present at each stage, but independent expert evidence mandated that there should have been an earlier referral to hospital. It was agreed that if he had been referred in the early evening, as he should have been, he would have avoided all serious disability except possibly less severe damage to his toes. The case was settled out of Court, although the GP had continued to deny that he had been negligent throughout the claim.

KEEP NOTES

Our experience shows how important it is to keep a record of conversations and symptoms discussed at each encounter with medical professionals so that you have a clear account of your symptoms and the timing of progression of any disease.  A specialist medical negligence solicitor will be greatly assisted by an accurate written record of what took place to compare with any medical records kept by the doctors concerned if there is concern about a delayed diagnosis of septicaemia or meningitis.

We fully support the need for ongoing national awareness of the symptoms of these awful diseases as without early treatment the outcomes can be catastrophic. You may wish to consider seeking specialist legal advice if you feel there has been medical negligence in the course of your care.

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