As the university year starts again, Philippa Luscombe, clinical negligence partner at Penningtons Manches LLP, urges people not only to be alert to the symptoms of meningitis but also to challenge doctors who say that they or their children are 'too well' to have this potentially fatal disease.

Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF), the charity behind Meningitis Awareness Week which took place last week (14-20 September), continues its programme of public awareness of the signs and symptoms of meningitis. A main focus is the higher proportion of young people – particularly university students - who contract meningitis, at this time of year. Students are the second most ‘at risk’ group after children with one in six sufferers of meningitis aged between 15 and 24.  It is really important both that young people know about the signs of meningitis and that doctors presented with ‘unwell’ students are alert to this possibility.

While still a comparatively rare condition, the consequences of meningitis can be devastating if it is not correctly diagnosed and treated early. Although viral meningitis is generally not life-threatening, bacterial meningitis, the more prevalent version of the disease in the UK, is very serious.

MRF statistics indicate that approximately three in 100,000 people in the UK will develop meningitis and/or septicaemia each year and one in ten people who contract meningitis will die. Of those who survive, approximately one in four are left with permanent disability. Quick diagnosis and correct treatment are vital for survival and a full recovery.

As specialist clinical negligence solicitors, Penningtons Manches is frequently approached by people with concerns about delays in the diagnosis of meningitis, particularly in children and young adults. While we only see a snapshot of medical care across the country, we see many cases where the diagnosis has been missed or delayed. A common theme, particularly in children, is that the individual is considered by the doctors to be 'too well' to have meningitis.

The difficulty is that the early signs of fever, vomiting and headache can be hard to recognise and are often just typical symptoms of being 'unwell'. In students suffering from winter colds and the after-effects of drinking too much, the signs can easily be missed or dismissed.  However, awareness of the symptoms, an open mind to the possibility of meningitis, and a willingness to act if the symptoms progress are critical to a good outcome. Other symptoms such as rash, joint pain, dislike of bright lights and a stiff neck are more specific and should never be ignored.

Philippa Luscombe comments:  “It is good to see this year that various student unions are also running campaigns to alert students to the risks and signs of meningitis. Meningitis Now has launched an ‘Off to Uni’ campaign of information leaflets, symptoms cards and branded wristbands in a bid to raise awareness.  We are also glad that the Department of Health is offering the Men ACWY vaccine free on the NHS to all 17 and 18 year olds and all university students up to 25.  Hopefully, all of these measures will enable quick diagnosis, prompt treatment and a full recovery for more people who develop meningitis and, crucially, help to reduce the numbers contracting it in the first place”.