A coroner has called for a public awareness campaign to highlight the dangers of a particularly lethal strain of meningitis and septicaemia following an inquest into the sudden death of a 24-year-old woman.
Dr Myra Cullinane made the recommendation for increased information about meningococcal W (MenW) at the conclusion of an inquest at Dublin Coroner’s Court into the death of Gemma McGee, who died on August 4, 2018, within 36 hours of falling ill.
The MenACWY vaccine, for which Gemma’s parents had actively campaigned after her death, was introduced in 2019 for first-year students in secondary schools due to a rise in cases of MenW infection.
However, her family claim improved care and greater public awareness are still needed to ensure nobody else dies from the preventable disease.
The inquest heard the Trinity College Dublin graduate and talented boxer from Aughnacliffe, Co Longford, had suddenly begun experiencing vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures on August 3, 2018, in her apartment in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, as she and two cousins were preparing to travel to Cork for a music festival.
Her cousin, Lauren McKeown, told the hearing that at one stage, Gemma was unconscious and her lips had turned blue as well as a rash developing on large parts of her body.
Gemma was brought by ambulance to the Regional Hospital Mullingar, before being transferred to the Mater Hospital in Dublin but died a few hours later.
Dr Owen MacEneaney, who performed an autopsy, said Gemma had died from the combined effects of septic shock and a form of abnormal blood clotting due to severe meningococcal septicaemia.
Dr MacEneaney said MenW was fatal in about 10% of cases while 30% of infections presented as septicaemia without meningitis.
The pathologist said Gemma had no other illness and had no signs of meningitis.
Dr Cullinane returned a verdict of death due to natural causes.
The coroner also recommended that PCR tests for the infection at the Irish Meningococcal and Meningitis Reference Laboratory at Temple Street Children’s Hospital should be carried out on a seven-day basis.
Outside the court, Gemma’s mother, Rosaleen McGee, said her family’s lives have been turned upside down as a result of Gemma “dying in the most horrific manner from a vaccine-preventable disease”.
Despite the introduction of the MenACWY vaccine in Ireland, Ms McGee said there was no catch-up programme for people aged over 13 years, while she also criticised the lack of publicity about the vaccine, which she pointed out could be obtained privately for €50.
“It is not acceptable that a vaccine exists but is not freely available in the Republic,” said Ms McGee.