Friday 18 October 2019

Fall in children getting vaccines 'contributing to spike' in meningitis that killed three, expert warns

There has been a fall in the uptake of meningococcal vaccines among children in recent years, leaving thousands at risk. Stock Image
There has been a fall in the uptake of meningococcal vaccines among children in recent years, leaving thousands at risk. Stock Image
The HSE is investigating the matter

Kathy Armstrong and Eilish O'Regan

A fall in children getting their full set of vaccines could be contributing to the spike in people being struck down by a deadly form of meningitis.

So far there are three people directly linked with meningococcal disease.

The  Health Protection Surveillance Centre said that they have been notified of eleven cases of the infection over the past two weeks, compared to five during the same period last year.

Professor Sam McConkey, Consultant in Infectious Diseases at Beaumont Hospital, is urging parents to ensure their children have their full set of vaccines as this can help prevent meningitis.

Speaking to Miriam O'Callaghan on Today With Sean O'Rourke on RTE Radio One, Prof McConkey spoke about the importance of vaccinations.

"The increase could be (related to people not getting their full set of vaccines as children), 85 to 90 per cent of our children do get vaccinated, but still about 10 to 15pc don't get vaccinated for various reasons, that's obviously one reason why we see this.

"Secondly, it tends to be higher in winter, it's been unusually warm and so we've been doing different things socially.

"There may be different factors but the drop in vaccine coverage is probably contributing to it."

He said that there are different strains of meningitis and that all age groups can be affected but that younger people are the most at risk of being diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis.

He noted: "Kids between six months and six years are sadly at the greatest risk of this, and then at adolescence, 15 to 25 years old, there's another peak.

"Kids going to college, kids in the army, kids living in dorms and cramped conditions.

"So it's those two groups, six months to six years and 15 to 25."

He warned that the symptoms to look out for may include:

  • Fever (sometimes with cold hands and feet)
  • Joint or muscle pain
  • Rapid breathing
  • Severe Headaches
  • Drowsiness
  • Discomfort from bright light
  • Neck stiffness
  • Vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhoea
  • Non-blanching rash may appear which may be tiny red pin pricks that may develop to purple bruises. This rash does not fade under pressure.

Prof McConkey stressed that ensuring children are fully vaccinated is the best way to prevent meningitis.

He continued to say that if meningitis is caught in time the patient can make a full recovery.

"If in doubt contact your GP or the doctor on call, if a child has a spotty rash, fever and headache then I think you're looking at the nearest source of medical advice quite urgently.

"It may be the emergency room if people are having the warning signs - the rash that doesn't go white when you press on it, the uncontrollable shakes and the fever.

"This is a source of anxiety for parents, carers and those who get sick, it's a devastating experience for people who go through it.

"With good care, maybe 90pc of people who go through it will recover, without treatment more of less everybody dies of meningitis", he said.

Prof McConkey's comments come after Dr Suzanne Cotter, Specialist in Public Health Medicine, HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre, urged parents to ensure their children are vaccinated.

She said: "Although meningococcal disease incidence generally increases in the winter months, the recent increase is cause for concern and the HSE wishes to alert the public to the signs and symptoms of this disease so that immediate medical attention can be sought if someone has symptoms that could be caused by this bug.

"If anyone has any concerns about meningitis they should ring their GP in the first instance.  Meningitis and septicaemia often happen together and symptoms can appear in any order. Some may not appear at all.

"Early symptoms can include; fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pain, stomach cramps, fever with cold hands and feet and a rash, but do not wait for the rash to appear.

"If someone is ill and getting worse, get medical help immediately.

"Parents of children should also check that they are up-to-date regarding their childhood meningococcal vaccinations."

A vaccine that protects against meningococcal C disease (MenC vaccine) is given at 6 months and at 13 months and meningococcal B vaccine (MenB vaccine) is given at 2, 4, and 12 months of age.

In addition adolescents are routinely offered the MenC vaccine in the first year of secondary school. Older teenagers and young adults up to the age of 23 years who never received a MenC vaccine are recommended to get the vaccine.

Other vaccines that protect against other forms of meningitis and septicaemia are included in the routine child vaccination programme (Hib vaccine and pneumococcal vaccine (PCV)).

All children should get their vaccines in accordance with the national schedule. Children who have missed vaccines can obtain these vaccines from their GPs.

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