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You are in: Home Page | Personal Injury | Medical Negligence Claims | Clinical Negligence Articles and Clinical Negligence Factsheets | Meningitis and septicaemia

January 2011

Meningitis and septicaemia

Introduction

Meningitis and septicaemia affect an estimated 3,000 people per year in the UK. 10% of these cases sadly result in death, whilst 15% are left with severe life changing disabilities including sight and hearing loss.

Meningitis occurs when the membranes surrounding the brain (collectively known as the meninges) and spinal cord become infected and inflamed. Meningitis is considered to be a potentially life threatening disease, given the proximity of the membranes to the brain and spinal cord and the potential for damage to each. The source of the inflammation can be viral or bacterial.

Viral meningitis is not usually life threatening. It can develop as a result a viral disease such as shingles, mumps and the herpes simplex viruses.

Bacterial meningitis is more serious. In the UK and Ireland most forms of bacterial meningitis develop as a result of the meningococcal bacteria. This bacteria can lead to the development of meningococcal septicaemia (blood poisoning) which can become life threatening.

Symptoms

Meningitis
• Fever / vomiting
• Severe headache
• Stiff neck
• Dislike of bright lights
• Very sleepy / vacant / difficult to wake
• Confused / delirious
• Rash
• Seizures

Septicaemia
• Fever / vomiting
• Limb / joint / muscle pain
• Cold hands and feet / shivering
• Pale or mottled skin
• Breathing fast / breathless
• Rash (which does not fade with pressure)
• Very Sleepy / vacant / difficult to wake
• Confused / delirious

For more information regarding the symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia, please refer to www.meningitisuk.org

How Does Meningitis Develop?

Meningitis develops when a virus or bacteria spreads through the blood in the body and penetrates weaker areas of the blood-brain barrier, which usually protects the meninges from bacterial infections. The blood infects the meninges which causes them to swell and can cause damage to the brain and spinal cord. The bacteria and virus may also infect the cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid that protects the brain and spinal cord) and this can cause the meninges to swell further, placing more pressure on the skull and brain.

Diagnosis and Treatment

People are advised to seek urgent medical advice if they are displaying any of the above symptoms.

Bacterial meningitis and septicaemia require immediate hospital attention. A physical examination will be carried out to look for specific signs of meningitis and septicaemia and urgent treatment with antibiotics and steroids may be administered to reduce the inflammation around the brain. If treated immediately, the condition is less likely to become fatal.

Tests used to diagnose meningitis include a lumbar puncture (also known as a spinal tap) which is where a sample of cerebrospinal fluid is removed to check whether there is the presence of bacteria or virus. Blood tests are also necessary to assess the patients health. Meningitis and septicaemia cannot be diagnosed through imaging tests such as x-rays, however they can be used to assess the amount of pressure on the brain which may help to determine what treatment is required.

Sometimes treatment with antibiotics may be started as soon as the patient attends hospital if meningitis is suspected. This is because the patient’s condition can be too serious for medical staff to carry out tests and await the outcome. In these cases the lumbar puncture can be conducted once the patient’s condition has improved. Where a patient’s condition is serious, they may require specialist care and treatment in an intensive care unit. It is essential that patients receive the correct treatment in hospital, this can make the difference between life and death.

Antibiotics are not effective against viral meningitis. However, dependant on the patient and their medical condition, antibiotics may still be administered on admission to the hospital where the cause of meningitis is unknown. Once a patient has been diagnosed with viral meningitis, antibiotics are usually discontinued. There is no specific treatment for the majority of viral meningitis cases. Patients will usually receive intravenous fluids and painkillers. In severe cases (usually where the herpes simplex virus is identified as the cause of the meningitis) anti-viral medication may be effective. Patients should be allowed a period of rest and recuperation in order to make a full recovery.

Outcome

Meningitis and septicaemia are very serious conditions and the outcome came be life changing. It is essential that treatment is sought at the earliest opportunity to ensure the best possible outcome. The following injuries can occur as a result of meningitis and septicaemia.

• Neuro-developmental problems
• Hearing loss
• Vision loss
• Gangrene, leading to amputation
Skin scarring
• Death

Errors which May lead to Litigation

Litigation in relation to meningitis and septicaemia may be difficult to pursue.

However, there are certain circumstances where a claim for compensation can be made. This is where we can prove that one or more of the following errors (or ‘negligent acts’) have occurred;

• Delayed diagnosis of meningitis and / or septicaemia
• Inappropriate treatment for meningitis and / or septicaemia
• Delay in providing treatment once meningitis and / or septicaemia have been diagnosed.

Your GP is usually the first point of contact when displaying symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia. As some symptoms are unspecific they are often mistaken for other, less serious conditions such as influenza. It is therefore possible for a misdiagnosis to be made. It is not in all cases that we can argue that this has occurred negligently as sometimes the symptoms may not appear serious at first. All claims are assessed on a case by case basis and it is important for us to understand exactly what symptoms were presented to the GP at the time. This will give us an indication as to whether meningitis or septicaemia should have been suspected.

Compensation is based on the injury suffered and not the negligent act itself, therefore in order to pursue a claim for compensation, we must be able to prove that there has been a specific injury as a result of the negligent act. Both meningitis and septicaemia can result in life altering injuries. We would therefore have to be able to prove that these injuries occurred as a direct result of the negligent act and would not have occurred had the correct diagnosis been made or the treatment administered in a timely manner.

Cases Dealt with by Thompsons Solicitors

Thompsons Solicitors were able to secure a substantial amount of compensation in a case which involved a baby aged 11 months who developed meningitis which sadly went undiagnosed. The baby was presenting with around 5 out of 7 symptoms indicative of meningitis. However, a urine infection was suspected and the baby was sent home. Later that same day however, the baby’s condition deteriorated and she was taken back into hospital. On this occasion, meningitis was diagnosed. However, sadly by this time the baby had suffered brain damage. It was agreed that had treatment with antibiotics been started when she was initially taken to hospital, it is possible that the outcome would not have been as catastrophic, although it was accepted that she may have suffered some damage.

Thompsons Solicitors also fought and won a case which again involved a child who contracted viral meningitis. The infection left the client paralysed on her left side. Thompsons secured a significant amount of compensation, which was able to go towards the child’s future care costs.

Conclusion

Meningitis and septicaemia can be serious conditions and can, if not treated promptly lead to devastating outcomes. Vaccines are available for some types of meningitis and septicaemia, unfortunately however they cannot protect against all forms. Research is currently underway to develop additional vaccines and to improve the vaccines that are already available. It is unclear why meningitis develops in some people and this makes it difficult to develop new vaccines for the various forms of the condition.

Whilst new forms of treatment and vaccines are being developed, it is imperative that patients and medical professionals to be aware of the condition and proactive in the treatment of it.

Compensation Claims Advice

Thompsons Solicitors have years of experience in dealing with cases involving clinical negligence.
If you or anyone you know has suffered from any form of clinical negligence, telephone us now for accurate personal injury claim advice.

There are strict time limits in place to make any personal injury compensation claim. For further information, contact us or visit our Questions Answered page.

Thompsons Solicitors are experts in all matters relating to clinical negligence and will be able to advise you as to whether or not you have a valid personal injury claim for compensation. Our specialist clinical negligence lawyers will be happy to talk you through the process of making a claim in plain English and will be happy to answer any questions or queries you may have.

Telephone us now on 08000 224 224 or complete one of our online personal injury compensation claim forms.