Wednesday 12 December 2018

'We're lucky our baby survived meningitis'

Meningitis can kill within hours, which is why parents Michael and Lisa Fox were horrified to find out their week-old baby girl had developed the potentially deadly disease

Michael Fox with his wife, Lisa; four-year-old son, Jack, and daughter, Perrie, aged eight months. Perrie contracted viral meningitis at one week old. Pic: Arthur Carron
Michael Fox with his wife, Lisa; four-year-old son, Jack, and daughter, Perrie, aged eight months. Perrie contracted viral meningitis at one week old. Pic: Arthur Carron

Arlene Harris

Most parents will agree that there is nothing more precious and helpless than their newborn babies and we would all move heaven and earth to protect them. So when Michael and Lisa Fox discovered that their week-old daughter, Perrie, was suffering from meningitis, their whole world collapsed.

"Last November, Lisa and I were at home with our new baby and our son, Jack (four), when her mother mentioned that Perrie was very hot," recalls Michael. "Lisa's nephew developed meningitis when he was three [and although he survived, his hearing has been impaired as a result] so the family was always on the alert for symptoms.

"Initially, we didn't think too much of it but after stripping her down, her temperature stayed at over 38°C and she seemed really sleepy and still, so Lisa's mum urged us to call the doctor.

"We were a little reluctant to do it in the beginning as we didn't want to appear to be the over-anxious parents of a new baby but she persisted, so we rang the health nurse, who told us to go straight to the hospital and have her checked out."

Arriving at A&E after an hour in the busy city traffic, the Dublin couple still didn't realise how sick their little girl was - but within minutes of examining the child, medical staff had assessed the situation and the baby was immediately put on medication and admitted to the children's ward.

"We had no idea what was wrong with Perrie but we began to think it was serious when we saw how quickly the doctors moved to look after her," says the father-of-two. "They took her straight away for treatment but it wasn't until a couple of hours later that they told us she had meningitis. We were absolutely devastated and both Lisa and I broke down, as we couldn't imagine how she would survive a disease like that.

"She was a particularly tiny baby at birth, only 6lbs, so it was impossible to see how she would cope with something so dangerous, but we had to wait overnight for lab results to reveal exactly what strain of the disease she had. Those long hours were horrific and we didn't sleep a wink all night. There was nothing we could do but put our trust in the hands of the medical team and pray it would all turn out okay."

Luckily for Perrie, the strain of meningitis she had contracted was viral and not immediately life-threatening so, after treatment and observation, she was discharged four days later.

"We were so relieved when we found out that the type she had [enteroviral meningitis] was not as serious as some of the others," says Michael, who works in the motor trade. "And despite her size, she was a real fighter so after a few days we were able to take her home.

"It was so fortunate that we acted as quickly as we did and, to be honest, if it wasn't for my mother-in-law insisting that we get her seen, I'm not sure what the outcome would have been, as we were too concerned about not wanting to bother the doctors.

"Thankfully, our little girl is doing great now and is a really happy, smiley baby. We are still waiting to find out if her hearing was affected by the meningitis but, other than that, she is in perfect health and we are all so grateful."

While the Fox family are still counting their blessings, Michael has decided to try to raise funds and awareness about the disease that almost took his infant daughter's life. "It is hard to describe what it is like watching your tiny baby fighting for survival," he says. "We cannot thank the medical staff enough for all they did for Perrie and really want to make others aware of how fast this disease can come on. I am going to take part in the Rock 'n' Roll half marathon in Dublin on August 13 (To donate go to www.idonate.ie/rockandrollmarathon) so I can raise some money for the MRF [Meningitis Research Foundation] and help fund research and raise public awareness of the need to act as quickly as possible if there are any worrying symptoms. Our baby is here today because we got medical help straight away and it just goes to show that you can't take any risks with meningitis."

Ireland has the highest rate of the disease in Europe and the Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) is urging people to become aware of the signs and symptoms and get vaccinated.

"Several vaccines are available free for children in Ireland which protect against meningitis and septicaemia caused by Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria and some types of meningococcal bacteria," says Claire Wright, MRF medical information manager. "These vaccines have proven to be extremely successful and we encourage parents to take up the offer, as vaccination is the best way to prevent the disease."

Bacterial meningitis is inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord - the meninges - while septicaemia is blood poisoning caused by the same germs.

Babies, toddlers and young adults are most at risk but the diseases can strike anyone, of any age, at any time, and Wright outlines the various vaccination programmes available in Ireland.

"A vaccine which protects against meningococcal C (MenC) meningitis and septicaemia has been available for many years in Ireland as part of the infant immunisation schedule," she says. "More recently, the MenC vaccine was offered to teenagers as part of the school immunisation programme in the first year of second-level school.

"This is because this age group are more likely to carry meningococcal bacteria in the back of the nose and throat, so vaccinating them stops them from carrying the bacteria and protects the rest of the population by stopping the spread of disease.

"Most recently, the vaccine to protect against meningococcal B meningitis and septicaemia (MenB) has been introduced for babies and is available to infants in Ireland born on or after October 1, 2016. Introducing the MenB vaccine in December 2016 was a great step forward, because MenB is the most common cause of meningitis and septicaemia in this country. There is not yet any evidence that the MenB vaccine will prevent carriage of the bacteria in the back of the nose and throat, so the vaccine is not currently offered to teenagers."

What to look out for

* The first symptoms are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell

* Limb pain, pale skin, and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than the rash, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and confusion

Other signs in babies can include:

* Tense or bulging soft spot on the head

* Refusing to feed

* Irritable when picked up, with a high-pitched or moaning cry

* A stiff body with jerky movements, or else floppy and lifeless

* Fever is often absent in babies less than three months of age

* Early symptoms can be like other childhood illnesses, but children with meningitis or septicaemia can get worse quickly

What to do if you're worried

* You know your child best - check on them often; trust your instincts

* If you think your baby has meningitis or septicaemia, get medical help immediately

* Say that you are worried it could be meningitis or septicaemia

* Return to a health professional if you have been sent home but your child's symptoms persist or get worse

* Do not wait for a rash to appear... However, if they are already ill and get a new rash or spots, use the Tumbler Test:

press a clear glass tumbler firmly against the rash; if you can see the marks clearly through the glass, seek urgent medical help

* For more advice, visit meningitis.org

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