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The dangers of not spotting meningitis soon enough

Category: Misdiagnosis Claims

Last Updated: 29th Jul 2021

About the Author

Medical Negligence Solicitor and Partner - LLB (Hons) University of Mid-Glamorgan

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A misdiagnosis by a healthcare professional in any circumstance may have serious, life-altering consequences for the affected patient. This is certainly true with regards to meningitis – a dangerous and potentially fatal disease if not recognised and treated swiftly.

Time is of the essence when a patient is suspected to have meningitis. Someone with this illness can transition from feeling slightly under the weather to being in a critical state in a matter of hours. A misdiagnosis means that the patient may not receive the prompt treatment and care they require, putting their immediate and long-term health at great risk.

Here, we explore exactly why a misdiagnosis-based delay can be especially serious in meningitis cases, and outline what needs to be proven for meningitis claims to be successful.

What is meningitis?

There are three broad categories of meningitis:

  1. Bacterial meningitis
  2. Viral meningitis
  3. Fungal meningitis

While all three carry definitive risks to your health, bacterial meningitis is the riskiest type of the three. While viral meningitis can often go away on its own in 7-10 days, bacterial meningitis needs to be immediately treated with antibiotics and will often require at least a week-long stay in hospital.

The following organisms most commonly cause bacterial meningitis:

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae / Pneumococcus
  • Neisseria meningitidis / Meningococcus
  • Haemophilus influenza / Haemophilus
  • Listeria monocytogenes / Listeria
  • Mycobacterium tuberculosis / Tuberculosis
  • Streptococcus agalactiae / Group B Streptococcal
  • Escherichia coli / E. Coli

Fortunately, instances of bacterial meningitis are typically rare. Between June 2019 and June 2020, there were only 461 confirmed cases of invasive meningococcal disease (IMD), a 12% drop from the previous year.

Yet, this rarity does not make bacterial meningitis any less dangerous for those who contract it, especially if it is not treated swiftly.

How is meningitis spread?

While anyone can be susceptible to meningitis, those typically most prone to contracting it are:

  • Babies and infants
  • Teenagers
  • Young adults
  • Elderly people
  • People with an impaired immune system

They often contract meningitis from carriers with the bacteria or virus in their nose or throat which is then transferred either via:

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Kissing
  • Using shared utensils

It is important to note here that in the early stages of bacterial meningitis, the symptoms can be no worse than that of a cold or flu. However, within 24 hours of no treatment, the disease can leave permanent damage and, in the most tragic circumstances, prove fatal.

88.7% of children or teenagers killed by meningitis each year pass away less than 24 hours after being diagnosed (Meningitis Research Foundation)

The consequences of slow meningitis treatment

Although cases of bacterial meningitis themselves are rare, it is estimated that 1 in every 10 is fatal, while 1 in every 2-3 people who are diagnosed with bacterial meningitis will be left with at least one permanent disability.

This is why patients with suspected meningitis should be immediately treated with antibiotics before it is confirmed what type of meningitis they have – the bacterial versions move fast and can have serious consequences if not addressed swiftly.

If patients are treated soon after diagnosis, there is a good chance they make a full recovery. However, if there is any delay, a wide number of complications can develop, including:

  • Life-threatening blood poisoning (septicaemia)
  • Loss of limbs, amputated to restrict the spread of the disease
  • Permanent damage to the brain and nerves
  • Learning difficulties and behavioural problems
  • Total or partial blindness
  • Total or partial hearing loss
  • Epilepsy or recurrent seizures
  • Memory and concentration issues
  • Coordination, balance and movement difficulties
  • Arthritis and other bone/joint problems
  • Kidney problems

All of these repercussions can affect a person for the rest of their life, and may cause them to require equipment, medication or specialist support such as:

  • Cochlear implants to help the person recover their hearing
  • Prosthetic limbs to replace any amputations, as well as rehabilitation work to support their recovery
  • Psychological and counselling to alleviate any trauma the person faces immediately following their diagnosis and treatment.
  • Care and support for activities of daily living

It is these long-term consequences for both the sufferers of meningitis and their loved ones that makes fast, accurate diagnosis and treatment absolutely paramount to the person’s long-term prospects.

And any failure to meet what would reasonably be expected from a healthcare professional in the same situation may be considered grounds for meningitis claims.

What is considered a meningitis misdiagnosis?

As noted before, the earliest stages of contracting bacterial meningitis can be practically symptomless, and at most mirror symptoms of a cold or flu.

This means that, even after undergoing all reasonable precautions, it is possible that a healthcare professional fails to notice they are suffering with meningitis. As long as all reasonable actions have been taken, it is unlikely that the professional will be considered to have acted negligently.

We are fortunate that the standard of care in this country is so high that the instances listed are rare. Nevertheless, studies by the Meningitis Research Foundation published in 2018 revealed that it might not be as infrequent as we would hope:

  • 30% of young babies with bacterial meningitis receive inappropriate early treatment
  • 49% of children with meningococcal infection are sent home after their first GP visit and not admitted to hospital

This illustrates that the challenges involved in catching meningitis early mean that, some cases can slip through the net initially, making it impossible to prevent them suffering permanent damage when they finally receive treatment.

Any failure to identify the signs of meningitis, mistaking it for a less serious condition or not providing a suitable standard of care could be the foundation for a successful meningitis misdiagnosis claim. These instances include:

  • A notable misdiagnosis or delay in diagnosis which directly contributed to serious injuries like amputations or blindness
  • A failure to organise appropriate diagnostic tests
  • Misinterpreting test results, leading to an avoidable misdiagnosis
  • Delayed, ineffective or inappropriate treatment of a meningitis patient
  • An avoidable delay in recognising signs of meningitis and acting accordingly
  • Noticing potential signs of meningitis, yet not administering antibiotics immediately
  • Delay or failure to admit the patient to hospital immediately after diagnosis

If you suspect that the above applies to the treatment received by you or a loved one it could form the foundation of a successful meningitis misdiagnosis claim. This could then provide the financial security to continue your life as comfortably and conventionally as possible, and the justice that you deserve.

Making a meningitis misdiagnosis claim

If you suspect that you or a loved one’s treatment was affected by one of these factors, it could form the foundation of a meningitis misdiagnosis claim.

A successful claim can help you achieve the financial security you need to continue your life as comfortably and conventionally as possible, and the justice that you deserve for the avoidable harm you and your loved ones have endured.

If a nurse, doctor or hospital has failed to spot the signs of meningitis, we can make sure you are granted the compensation your family deserves. Our solicitors are highly experienced in all forms of misdiagnosis claim, undergoing all necessary investigation to determine the likely cause of your condition, and negotiating a fair settlement that meets your requirements.

Get in touch with our team for more information on how you can make a claim for a misdiagnosed meningitis.

Disclaimer

All content contained within this article is meant for general information only – this should not be treated as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor or another healthcare provider. If you require legal advice specific to your situation, please contact our team directly.

Gadsby Wicks is not liable for any diagnosis made from the content of this article, nor does it endorse any service or external site linked to within the article.

Always consult your GP if you are concerned about your health and wellbeing, or speak to us if you require legal advice.