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Delayed diagnosis of meningitis


    A recent inquest in the East Midlands has highlighted the risks of delayed diagnosis and treatment of children with meningitis by medical staff.

    By Kerstin Kubiak

A two year old boy tragically died as the 999 operator had difficulties understanding the Czech parents and instead of either sending an ambulance or finding an interpreter, the call was downgraded to non urgent. A second 999 call did result in an ambulance attending the family home, but despite all efforts the child could not be saved.  The delay in giving treatment was only a matter of 13 minutes, yet the doctor at the inquest stated that, in relation to meningitis “every minute counts” and that with earlier treatment the little boy probably would have survived.


As a medical negligence solicitor I see, far too often, cases brought by parents relating to the loss of their child or serious injury to their child following the delayed diagnosis of meningitis and therefore delayed treatment of meningitis. The circumstances of delay in treatment as recorded by the Coroner in the above example is sadly not unusual which is why various charities are running campaigns to highlight awareness of the signs and symptoms of what can be a killer disease.

The Meningitis Trust (who have merged with Meningitis UK) launched a campaign to highlight that a rash is not the only symptom of meningitis. The symptoms vary between babies, young children and adults and it’s important that medical staff are alert to the possibility of either meningitis or septicaemia infection.  Key symptoms include, but are not limited to, a fever, vomiting, dislike of bright lights, painful headache, pale/blotchy skin and spots/a rash, drowsiness and irritability.

The Meningitis Research Foundation has previously funded a study into the causes of deaths of children from this disease which noted that there were 3 primary problems associated with medical care in England and Wales:

1) Children who were looked after by doctors who had no paediatric training were more likely to die;
2) Children treated by junior doctors with insufficient consultant supervision were more likely to die;
3) Cases where management did not follow a widely available treatment protocol and therefore did not get aggressive early treatment were also more likely to die.

The study concluded that “with wider use of treatment protocols, and better training and supervision of hospital staff, more children may survive this deadly disease.”  It would be interesting to see if a review study demonstrates any improvement on these failures.


A partner in our clinical negligence team successfully sued a hospital on behalf of a child who had suffered a delayed diagnosis of meningitis as the symptoms were dismissed by Doctors treating him. The delay in diagnosis caused our client to suffer a major brain injury and he was subsequently diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Compensation of £4.9 million was obtained in order to care and provide for him for the rest of his life.

We wrote earlier this year about reports that compensation for meningitis claims is increasing, which confirms that this is an ongoing issue which needs to be looked at.  It is very much hoped that with better awareness of symptoms by parents and medics, and following treatment protocols this killer disease will be treated much earlier and the consequences of delayed diagnosis of meningitis can be avoided.

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