GPs must be ‘on permanent alert for signs of meningitis’

Research by a meningitis charity emphasises the need for GPs and other healthcare professionals to take concerns about the condition seriously

It’s meningitis awareness week (17-23 September), and the Meningitis Research Foundation has published a report stating that better advice about the problem from health professionals – particularly GPs, as the frontline of healthcare – could save lives.

While national healthcare guidelines recommend that parents are given ‘safety netting’ information by their doctors if they suspect meningitis, the report shows that this doesn’t always happen. In fact, children are being misdiagnosed and put in real danger as a result.

The report shows that 30% of babies with meningitis receive wrong or inappropriate treatment early on, delaying their parents seeking the proper help. Worse still, almost half (49%) of children with meningococcal infection – the most common cause of meningitis – are sent home after their first GP visit.

Most children suffering the early stages of meningitis display non-specific symptoms within the first 4-6 hours, but they could be killed within a day if left untreated.

The Meningitis Research Foundation’s report includes a case study of 100 parents whose children had meningitis but were sent home after their first visit to a health professional. It urges that doctors treat meningitis as a much more serious possibility, in order to lessen its potentially deadly impact on babies and children.

Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard responded to the report on behalf of GPs across the country:

“GPs know all too well that meningitis and indeed any form of sepsis can lead to serious complications, and in some cases can be fatal, if not recognised and treated in a timely manner. But the challenge for all clinicians is that initial symptoms often present in exactly the same way as common viral illnesses such as flu, making both conditions very hard to spot in the early stages of disease.

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“GPs are on permanent alert for signs of meningitis in their patients and we do speak to the parents of babies and young children about what they need to look out for which may indicate that an illness could be developing into something much more serious.

“The College would certainly welcome new resources that GPs could share and discuss with patients and parents of young children, that raise awareness of the symptoms of meningitis, so that people can get the best possible care as quickly as possible.

“GPs also recognise that parents and carers are the ones who really know their child best and that listening to a parents’ concerns about their child is often an important indicator of whether something is not right. This is something we will always try to take into account, along with any other physical, psychological and social factors potentially impacting on the health of the patient in front of us.

“Sepsis is a Spotlight project for the RCGP and we have developed high quality resources to support GPs and other members of the practice team identify possible cases of sepsis, which also includes a ‘symptom checker’ to illustrate the signs and symptoms to look out for.”

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