Childhood illness can still kill

November 14, 2007

Childhood illness can still kill

Kim van der Merwe

Despite the medical advances being made, children today still die of meningitis and pneumonia and this has highlighted the need for a parent advocacy group to profile how deadly these diseases can be.

Attention to meningococcal disease has arisen due to several recent epidemics, with the highest incidence rates in infants less than a year old. Also significantly at risk are any children under five years.

Bev Day, a mother who has lost a child, says the onset of the disease is sudden and often misdiagnosed. Within six hours we lost our child as a result of meniningococcal disease, after an initial diagnosis of chicken pox while on holiday.

Day stresses time is of the essence and the disease needs to be correctly diagnosed and speedily treated. My plea to all parents is that the new available vaccination is a must and of paramount importance, as prevention is better than cure and can definitely save lives.

Both diseases are caused by a common bacteria, when this bacteria invades the covering of the brain, it causes bacterial meningitis and when the lungs are invaded, pneumonia develops. The bacteria is normally found in the nasopharynx/throat, especially in children and is spread via the respiratory route, mainly from child to child and from child to adult.

What makes bacterial meningitis such a deadly disease is the severe side effects such as hearing loss, intellectual deficits, balance disturbances and paralysis.

Renee Niemann knows how important an early diagnosis is. Her son Boeta, survived meningitis but has been left physically handicapped, blind, unable to sit without help, paralysed on his left side and with permanent brain damage.

Niemann says the symptoms of meningitis can be difficult to diagnose, which is why Boeta’s condition wasn’t correctly diagnosed for a few days.

Initial signs of bacterial meningitis include fever, irritability, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, anorexia, headaches, confusion, back pain and neck stiffness. Seizures may occur in some children.

In infants the classic meningitis symptoms may be harder to detect, but inconsolable crying, irritability, lethargy and feeding problems should not be ignored.

Niemann says at first doctors though Boeta had a cold. He quickly developed a fever and we were assured it was only a cold which had turned into a middle-ear infection. By the time the correct diagnosis was made it was too late and Boeta’s brain had been irrevocably damaged.

In young infants the signs and symptoms of pneumonia may be subtle. In some cases, no respiratory symptoms are exhibited, with fever or severe abdominal pain with or without vomiting, being the only initial symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of pneumonia may include sudden onset of illness characterised by shaking chills, fever, shortness of breath or rapid breathing, chest pain that is worsened by breathing deeply and a productive cough.

Treatment should be started as soon as pneumonia is diagnosed or suspected, particularly in infants younger than one year of age since signs of pneumonia may be subtle and the disease can progress rapidly.

Both Day and Niemann believe a parent advocacy group is needed to provide support to parents and information to the public to prevent tragedies like theirs from happening.

Therefore anyone finding themselves in this position or wanting to join or support the start up of this parent advocacy group can contact Kim van der Merwe on 011 646 992 or via email on

[7 Nov 2007 14:30]

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