Careful Christmas can surprise !

The joys of Christmas are commonly happy experiences shared by families and friends at this special time of year. The normal things are put to one side as we focus on getting together and then to going on holiday as we celebrate the year’s end and the start of a new one.

It’s also a time when many of us and our kids are mixing with and greeting family and friends with a kiss and a cuddle which is customary but more frequent than normal. It’s usually good weather and we tend to stay out a bit longer as the evening light and cooler temperatures encourage us to take advantage of the outdoors. All sounds normal and a standard part of living here.

So too is the vulnerability of our very young to dangerous communicable diseases at this time of year. Diseases do not go on holiday and some are prone to be shared as we celebrate.

As a family that has suffered from a boxing day illness which turned out to be meningitis it reminds us that they are there at all times. Severe illnesses often don’t happen at convenient times of the day or days of the year but the time cost to take action can be life changing; especially when you are on holidays away from home or have a busy calendar of social engagements and commitments.

Meningitis is a deadly disease which is in the community all year even in the heat of summer. Our lesson was that we should have acted sooner and been more decisive in our decision making for our daughter. We were following doctors instructions but as we were on the spot after hours at home we should have taken her to hospital emergency rather than wait til morning. She survived but has suffered severely. Today kids are vaccinated against most forms of Pneumococcal meningitis.

One hole in the fence though is Meningococcal B disease and it too can occur any time of year. Again it is a fast acting and life threatening disease affecting our very young children, teens and young adults. There is a vaccine available by prescription but it is not included in the National Immunisation Plan as yet.

Parents and friends need to remain vigilant of any unusual change in the health of their children or mates, in relation to meningitis look for the signs and symptoms and monitor their progress. If concerned then take action and obtain medical advice promptly.

After many years of hearing stories from parents whose children have had encounters with meningitis their messages are extremely similar. In short we are in charge and we need to be insistent and take affirmative action as soon as possible for an unusually sick child.

Christmas activities and access to services can make this advice more difficult to follow. You may be away from your usual services because of holidays, local services may be closed, you may be flat out busy. It may also be that you have not had a previous experience from which to make your judgement as to the severity of the illness. Fairness is not a characteristic of these events. It may require a change in approach which could be to take a quick trip to the emergency facility at your nearest hospital.

This is where we found ourselves with our infant daughter Ashleigh two days after Christmas. She was then admitted into the intensive care unit and placed into an induced coma. We spent New Year’s Eve there too, with another couple whose son was also fighting for his life.

Now 26 years on, she has just arrived home with one of her team of support workers. Our lives were changed for ever. On reflection we should have acted more quickly and followed our instincts. It occurred over the festive season, a happy time, a busy time and for the first time. Our family had never experienced anything like this.

Our message is not meant to alarm but to inform all to stay alert across this festive time of year. To have fun and catch up with family and friends and to look out for each other – especially for sick kids who might need us to be switched on as we celebrate and take a break.

Bruce Langoulant is the Chairman of Meningitis Centre Australia. For more details on the disease go to www.meningitis.com.au

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