Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Parents and GPs warned not to mistake meningitis for swine flu

The two illnesses have many symptoms in common – but a wrong diagnosis could be fatal

Back to school written on a whiteboard

As the school year begins, parents are warned to look out for symptoms of meningitis. Photograph: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Parents and GPs were warned today not to mistake meningitis for swine flu as millions of children began the new school year.

The two illnesses have similar symptoms, including aches and pains and cold hands and feet.

Cases of meningitis typically rise in the autumn – the same time experts have predicted a surge in the number of cases of swine flu.

Schools and universities going back means people are in close proximity, making it easy for illness to spread, and the flu virus tends to thrive in the cooler months.

At least two people are already known to have died from meningitis after mistakenly being diagnosed with swine flu.

Today, Steve Dayman, chief executive of the charity Meningitis UK, said parents should "trust their instincts" and watch out for the disease, which can kill in under four hours.

He lost his son Spencer to meningitis in 1982, when the boy was just 14 months old.

Dayman said: "Meningitis occurs throughout the year but very shortly we will see the number of cases going up.

"It's very difficult for GPs to identify meningitis in its early stages because it's very similar to flu – with symptoms such as cold hands and feet and aching limbs."

He said a pin prick rash that can turn into purple bruising is a classic sign of a meningococcal meningitis and requires urgent attention.

But he said parents should be on their guard even before this happens and seek medical attention if their child appears to deteriorate rapidly.

Children under five are most at risk from meningitis, followed by teenagers and students.

"The issue with children is that there is a rapid deterioration in their condition – within a matter of hours," Dayman said.

"I think it's important for parents of children to contact their GP if they feel concerned – meningitis should be a consideration.

"This is about parents and GPs working together – it's better to be safe than sorry. If hospitals are inundated with young children, then that's just the way it's got to be."

Pupils start to return to schools across the UK this week and experts have predicted there will be a rise in swine flu cases over the next few months.

At present, there are about 5,000 people being newly diagnosed with the virus in England every week, down from a peak of around 100,000 some weeks ago.

Research commissioned by Meningitis UK shows that nearly seven out of 10 adults are unaware there is no vaccine to protect against the most common form of the illness, meningitis B.

The strain causes almost 90% of cases and can kill in under four hours.

Dayman said: "We're urging [parents] to know the facts and be extra vigilant as their children return to the crowded environment of a school, where germs spread more easily due to close human contact.

"Meningitis and septicaemia can be hard to recognise in the early stages because the initial symptoms are similar to many mild childhood diseases.

"A child with bacterial meningitis or septicaemia will usually get ill quickly and get worse fast."

Classic symptoms of meningitis include a headache, stiff neck and a dislike of bright light. Other symptoms are difficulty supporting own weight, fever, vomiting and diarrhoea, confusion and drowsiness.

Septicaemia leads to aching limbs, cold hands and feet and a rash.

In 2008, there were around 3,000 cases of meningitis in the UK. Every year, 300 people die and hundreds more are left with permanent disabilities.

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