More than a million young people at risk of deadly meningitis – after NHS blunder means they've missed jab

MILLIONS of young Brits have been put at risk of deadly meningitis after an NHS blunder meant that they didn't get a jab reminder.

A meningitis vaccine was introduced back in August 2015, designed to help teens and young people fight a particularly deadly strain of meningococcal meningitis (MenW).

Although GPs were issued with an automated vaccine alert, they were handed out with the default "off" setting activated.

Meningitis Research Foundation say that the technological issue has meant that many young people have died from the disease, and over a million others could be unaware that they should get the lifesaving vaccine.

Teens who left sixth form in 2015, 2016, or 2017 need to get their free jab from their GP, but the uptake has been worryingly low.

A million young Brits at risk

The latest data from May 2018 shows that only around 40 per cent of that group have taken up the vaccine.

Fiona and Gavin Mason, from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, know only too well the risks of not having the jab.

Their son Tim, an apprentice electrical engineer, died from MenW last March aged just 21.

“Tim had seemed a little unwell in early March but felt better and returned to college and work," Fiona said.

"On 15 March, although at work, he felt sufficiently unwell to go to the doctor, who advised him to take a few more days off and rest.

“In the early hours of the morning on 16th we were woken as Tim was violently vomiting and very unwell. My instinct told me something was seriously wrong so we took him to hospital.

“By the time we got to Tunbridge Wells Hospital, he had a high temperature and could barely walk. After a long wait, he was misdiagnosed with gastroenteritis and sent home at about 8:45am.

“At about 2:30pm his condition got worse and he said he felt like he was dying so I rushed him back to hospital. This time doctors began treatment but it was too late to save his life. He died that evening."

Within 21 hours, Tim was dead

It was 21 hours and 15 minutes from Tim's first visible symptoms to death.

His mum says that the system failed him in more than one way.

Symptoms of MenW

IT can be mistaken as the flu or even a hangover – but knowing the symptoms of potentially deadly meningitis could save your life.

The two forms of the disease have different symptoms.

Around 3,200 people a year get bacterial meningitis. One in 10 die and many more are left with life-changing disabilities.

Viral forms of meningitis are less common and rarely life-threatening, but can have lifelong effects.

The symptoms of meningitis develop suddenly and include:

  • A high fever over 37.5 degrees – the average human temperature
  • being sick
  • a headache
  • a blotchy rash that doesn't fade when a glass is rolled over it
  • stiffness, especially in the neck
  • sensitivity to bright lights
  • drowsiness, irritability or lack of energy
  • cold hands and feet
  • seizures

Public health experts warned doctors last year that the symptoms of MenW can mimic drug misuse or being drunk.

Their letter followed recent cases where meningitis has been missed, and details the tragic story of an 18-year who developed a headache, cold hands and feet, stomach ache and vomiting over two days.

The parents contacted the out-of-hours doctor and a clinical diagnosis of acute food-poisoning was made during the telephone consultation. Tragically, it was not food-poisoning and the teenager died just hours later.

Many of the symptoms were early signs of septicaemia/sepsis but this was missed.

"He should have received a letter from the GP calling him in for his vaccine which would have prevented him getting MenW in the first place, but no letter was ever received," Fiona said.

"Tim had attended several GP appointments during the years after the vaccine was introduced in the UK. Had the EMIS alert been activated, he would have been flagged to staff at those appointments as a patient eligible for the vaccine. This didn’t happen.

“Having contracted the disease, the symptoms he was displaying should have triggered a sepsis alert when we first took him to hospital.

“All we can do now is try to raise awareness of these issues and make sure improvements are made to stop this happening to other families.”

It seems absurd to us that an emergency vaccination programme to protect young people against a lethal disease had systems in place that were switched off.

Fiona and Gavin have been working with Meningitis Research Foundation to investigate the issues with the software provider EMIS jab programme further.

EMIS told the charity that the alert for the MenACWY vaccine was released as inactive to avoid "alert fatigue".

A letter from Seema Kennedy MP to the charity stated that: “The protocol was not activated by default, but instructions were sent out for local activation.

"In response to your letter, it has been agreed that this alert will be enabled for all EMIS users in England.”

NHS Digital has now confirmed that the alert has was enabled for GP practices in England from the start of April.

'Absurd'

Vinny Smith, Chief Executive at Meningitis Research Foundation said, “It’s a tragedy for a young person to die from an illness that they should have been protected against through vaccination.

“It seems absurd to us that an emergency vaccination programme to protect young people against a lethal disease had systems in place that were switched off.

“Practices needed to activate the MenACWY alert protocol in order to use it but this would rely on them knowing how to do so.

"Practices told us they did not know how to activate the alert and we know deaths from MenW disease have occurred in young people who should have been offered the vaccine.

Am I eligible for a MenW jab?

Meningitis Research Foundation estimates that over a million young people have not yet got their free MenACWY vaccine from their GP.

The vaccine is routinely offered to teenagers in around school year 9 in England and Wales.

Anyone born between 1 Sept 1996 and 31 August 1999 remains eligible for the vaccine from their GP practice up until their 25th birthday. Anyone starting university for the first time and aged under 25 is also eligible.

It’s easy for anyone to check your eligibility at www.meningitis.org/oneshot.

“We admire the courage of the Mason family as they have raised awareness and triggered change within the NHS that will help avoid further deaths from this preventable, treatable disease."

He said that it was positive news that the alert had finally been activated and that it's "vital" that systems are improved so nothing like this ever happens again.

An NHS England spokesperson told The Sun: “It is the responsibility of each GP Practice to ensure they have the correct processes in place for inviting patients for vaccinations, and as set out in the GP Contract – and agreed with the BMA – there will be a review of vaccine arrangements later this year to see where improvements are needed.”

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