By the time Janine Dunbar’s five-month-old son Joseph was being examined in hospital, she knew something serious was wrong.
Janine had first noticed that her baby was not well when he awoke on a winter’s morning just two weeks before Christmas. He had a temperature and seemed out of sorts. After visiting a local GP and taking a trip to the hospital, his fever abated a little and the Dunbars hoped the worst had passed. It hadn’t.
Joseph awoke again in the early hours of the morning. This time he was screaming and in some distress. He vomited and cried, prompting his father, John, to rush him straight back to hospital. There, doctors performed a lumbar puncture, diagnosed meningitis and started him on antibiotics.
It was turning into every parent’s worst nightmare. Janine says seeing her baby son wired up to a drip as he painfully battled a life-threatening illness was heart-breaking. She sobbed when the doctors confirmed it was bacterial meningitis – a form of the disease which could have devastating effects on survivors and can be fatal.
It was a torrid time but the Dunbars’ tale was to have a happy ending. After enduring a few days in intensive care and eventually pulling through, Joseph’s temperature returned to normal and doctors detected lower levels of the pneumococcal bacteria which had caused the illness. Janine’s and John’s five-month-old baby boy was in recovery.
He was discharged but had to return for daily intravenous antibiotics and the long-term impact –if any – on his development may not be clear for a few years. Bacterial meningitis can affect hearing and learning ability even in some of those who recover well.
The traumatic experience had a profound effect on the Dunbar family. Janine told Vaccines Today that Joseph’s illness has influenced her whole approach to looking after her family’s health.
“You can’t possibly go through the experience of serious illness in one of your children and not be affected by it. You realise that these diseases can happen to you and your family at any time and they are not just some obscure subject that you may by informed about from time to time by the media.”
Now, if one of her children is unwell, Janine records the symptoms and any medication given, and doesn’t hesitate to demand immediate medical assessment. “Just this week one of my kids was sent home from school with a very high temperature and I was insistent with my GP’s receptionist that I wanted a doctor to see him that day.”
The problem with meningitis, she says, is that in its early stages it is often very difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can be very similar to other common illnesses. “That’s why parents must be vigilant.”
“My message to all parents is that if you are in the least bit unhappy with your child’s health you must seek medical advice. Never hang about for someone to phone you back if you feel your child is just not right, especially if it’s a baby and cannot communicate at all. Time is of the essence with meningitis and it can be the difference between life and death. You are the parent and you know your child.”
The episode has also served to reinforce Janine’s view on immunisation and she urges other parents to have their children vaccinated.
“I have always been completely pro-vaccination. It is thanks to vaccination that we have eradicated diseases such as polio and diphtheria in our country. Vaccination saves lives and after having gone through the experience that I have done with my son, my opinions have only been strengthened. Of course with anything there are risks but I do feel that the benefits greatly out-weigh these and I would like to thank all those scientists who are working constantly to produce new and improved vaccines,” she says.
When her son was offered a vaccination against H1N1 in 2009 she didn’t hesitate to accept. “Both my children have had all the vaccines that have been on offer to them. You feel helpless when you have to watch your child fight for their life but I hate to think how awful you would feel if you could have helped prevent that disease by vaccinating them and you didn’t do so.”
Janine says she urges other parents to take every opportunity to have their children vaccinated against meningitis and other vaccine-preventable diseases. She highlights the dangers of long-term damage which can be caused by meningitis.
“When people think of serious illness they often see the situation in black or white, either you survive or you die. That is true of course but in between that you get many shades of grey and for some survivors they never go away.”
“My son had bacterial meningitis and this can leave many serious after affects such as loss of hearing, balance and co-ordination problems, brain injury and severe disability. Many children loose limbs through having contracted meningitis too. Nobody wants this for their children or the rest of their families,” she says.
These days Joseph is doing well. Doctors believe his hearing has not been damaged and he appears to be developing normally. Janine says she and her husband feel like “the most fortunate parents in the world” to still have him, but the bottom line for the Dunbars is clear: “Vaccinating your child is the responsible thing to do.”
Joseph Dunbar’s story is also featured in The Book of Experience, an anthology of patient stories published by the Meningitis Research Foundation. To watch a video of Janine Dunbar recounting her family’s story, click here
This article is part of a series compiled by Vaccines Today to raise awareness of European Immunization Week 2011 which runs from 23-30 April