Gemma O’Connor feels lucky to be alive — because when she was just 16 years old she was given less than an hour to live after contracting meningococcal septicaemia.
Thankfully, she survived her ordeal but the Kerry woman knows only too well how quickly the disease can develop and potentially kill.
But while most of us are aware of the dangers of this virus, we usually associate it with babies, constantly looking for rogue spots or rashes and reacting with alarm when their temperature spikes.
However, while babies are the most at risk of developing this often fatal condition, they are always under the watchful eye of their parents who can usually determine whether or not medical help is needed. Young adults, on the other hand, are the second most at risk group, but are extra vulnerable as for the most part they are living away from home, not eating healthily or getting enough sleep and more often than not, will be experimenting with alcohol on a regular basis — in short, they rarely feel full of beans and herein lies the danger as the symptoms of meningitis in this age group are similar to that of a hangover.
Gemma, who has two young children of her own, remembers how quickly the virus took hold and how terrifying the ordeal was for her and the rest of the family.
“I was feeling unwell and went to bed thinking I had a vomiting bug as I was throwing up and felt really tired,” she says. “The following morning, my mother told me to stay off school but I didn’t get any better, later developing a pain in my neck and all my limbs felt really heavy.
“I was taken to the doctor who gave me a shot of penicillin and told my mother to bring me to hospital where I was pumped with antibiotics. Initially things didn’t look too bad as I was feeling slightly better so my parents were told to go home and get some rest. But at around 1am, they got a call telling them to get to the hospital immediately as I had between 10 minutes and an hour to live.”
Luckily, the outcome was positive as Gemma believes the swift thinking of her GP (who administered penicillin) helped stop the spread of the disease and today she is a happy and healthy mother of two. But other youngsters may not be so fortunate.
Ireland has the highest rate of meningitis in Europe and the Meningitis Research Foundation is urging people to become aware of the signs and symptoms and get vaccinated against the disease.
“The incidence of meningococcal disease amongst the 15-24 year age group rose from 10 cases in 2014 to 16 cases in 2015 according to the provisional statistics from the HPSC,” says Caroline O’Connor from the foundation. “This equates to a 60% increase year-on-year, and there were two deaths resulting from MenB in this age group in 2015.
“The carriage rate of bacteria in the young adult age group is 1 in 4 compared to 1 in 10 of the general population. This is largely due to their close social interaction as the bacteria is only spread by very close contact such as kissing, sharing cigarettes or drinking glasses, and living in close quarters such as student accommodation.
“As a result, it is vital that young adults are able to recognise the signs of the disease, particularly as it can often mimic a hangover or flu.”
Like many teenagers around the country, my own 18-year-old started college this year and, aware of the dangers of meningitis, I decided to get him vaccinated as a precaution.
But after ringing the health centre at his college — and several others around the country for research purposes — I was told that none of the campus medical centres offered the facility. I also rang vaccination centres in various towns to be told that there was no MenB vaccine available in the country at that time and I would have to wait until stocks were replenished.
Fortunately, my local GP eventually came up trumps and located a dose of the MenB inoculation — so my son has had his first shot (the second dose needs to be given a month later). But the practice was unable to source any of the MenACWY which is the vaccination all students in the UK are given routinely free of charge.
This strain of the virus is particularly virulent in Britain but while there hasn’t been a notable increase in Ireland yet, I still want to get my son protected against this — apparently I will have to wait until after Christmas for another batch of the vaccine to become available.
The Department of Health says despite the dangers and the apparent rise of meningitis cases, there is no plan to introduce a vaccination programme for teenagers any time soon. “Our focus at the moment is on babies and young children and there are no plans to extend the MenB vaccine to young adults for the foreseeable future,” says a spokesperson.
The HSE seems equally reticent regarding potential vaccination plans.
“The National Immunisation Advisory Committee is aware of the changes in the adolescent vaccination programme in the UK and will continue to monitor the situation and advise the Department of Health on meningococcal vaccination requirements in Ireland,” a spokesperson said.
In the absence of a vaccination programme, the MRF urges vigilance.
“It is of the utmost importance that people are aware that meningitis can strike at any age and young adults are the second most at risk group,” says Caroline O’Connor.
“It is vital that students recognise the signs and know when to seek medical help, particularly as they may be living away from home with no parents on hand to keep an eye on them if they are unwell.
“The MenB vaccine is available to order privately via your GP (costing between €130 and €180 per dose) and students are offered the MenC vaccine in the first year of secondary school to ensure lasting immunity into adulthood.
“There are on average 150-200 cases of bacterial meningitis in Ireland every year and MenB accounts for approximately 50% of these cases. On average 1 in 10 people who contract meningitis and septicaemia will die.”