Meningitis: How Important is Early Diagnosis?

3 Min Read

A new test for meningitis?

A hospital in Northern Ireland is said to be trialling a new test for meningitis. It is claimed to give results within an hour, whereas current tests take 2 days.

This could be a very important step forward. Meningitis is a serious condition. The infection can spread very quickly and overwhelm the body’s defences in a short period. In the worst cases patients have died or been seriously disabled. Some suffer brain injuries. Others end up with amputations.

Because doctors do not have time to wait for test results, they tend to err on the side of treatment. But clinical judgment is not an accurate way of diagnosing meningitis. Sometimes the wrong people will be treated. However, the test will only help where doctors already suspect meningitis. It will not help where the signs of early meningitis are not recognised.

It may be that a more important development would be a better way to identity infections in the bloodstream in sick children and adults, so that the wrong ones are not sent home.

What is meningitis?

Meningitis is an inflammation of membranes around the brain and spinal cord. It can be caused by bacteria or viruses. Pneumococcal meningitis occurs most often in babies and small children. Other forms of meningitis can be caused by TB or Group B Streptococcus.

Any form of meningitis caused by bacteria needs to be treated very quickly with antibiotics. It is important that the right antibiotics are used for the right bacteria.

Delays in diagnosis

Delays in diagnosis can be very serious. They are also easily made because it is often difficult to spot those who are likely to get rapidly worse. Just a few hours can make a big difference to the outcome. Things sometimes go wrong in hospital because of:

  • Failures to take a proper history
  • Failures to carry out a good enough examination
  • Delays in treatment

Emma’s story

Emma was 13 months old when she became unwell. She had a slight temperature, which was up and down, and seemed to be off her food. She had a heat rash. She was still unwell 9 days later although there were no signs then of meningitis. Her GP visited her at home.

The following morning Emma was no better and seemed to roll her eyes. This worried her parents who called an ambulance. Emma was taken to hospital. She saw an Accident and Emergency doctor. The doctor failed to ask enough questions and did not ask what prompted the parents to come to hospital. She sent Emma home at 6am.

Emma slept. When she woke, she seemed worse. Her parents took her back to hospital at 6pm. She saw a paediatrician 2 hours later. The paediatrician thought she may have bacterial meningitis and gave antibiotics. Unfortunately it was too late to prevent serious brain damage and hearing loss. All her injuries would have been avoided had she been treated 14 hours earlier.

The story shows quite how important it is to recognise meningitis and treat it quickly.

Meningitis and Negligence

Where people suffer avoidable injuries from negligent failures to diagnose or treat meningitis, they may be able to claim damages. Damages cannot turn the clock back but fund the support people need to manage serious conditions. These claims are complex. It is important to have the best lawyers with the right experience for these difficult claims. Enable Law’s solicitors are accredited experts. If you or someone you know would like advice about a claim, you can speak to us in confidence today on 08000 448 488.