Mother’s meningococcal grief a powerful reminder for the importance of routine immunisations

Morgan Liotta

23/04/2021 4:34:43 PM

Kirsty McGinty is sharing her daughter’s story to encourage people to stay on top of routine immunisations, with COVID-19 resulting in many being delayed or missed.

Zoe McGinty
Zoe McGinty died in 2017 after she unknowingly contracted meningococcal disease.

Twenty-year-old Zoe MicGinty had just returned from her morning gym session and eaten breakfast when she began to feel unwell.
At first, mother-of-four Kirsten recognised the symptoms as ones she’d seen before – high temperature, vomiting, diarrhoea – and thought she had some sort of tummy bug.
But it wasn’t long before Zoe became confused and started losing feeling in parts of her body, prompting Kirsten to call an ambulance.
Not long after the ambulance arrived Zoe lost consciousness, went into cardiac arrest, and was rushed to hospital. She passed away early the next morning.
Described by her mum as a ‘healthy, active and vibrant’ young woman, Zoe was in the final year of a university degree. Kirsten told newsGP she could not have ever imagined that her daughter would die from unknowingly contracting meningococcal.
‘You’d never assume it would be anything as serious,’ Kirsten said.
‘They didn’t have the immunisation program in her school so she hadn’t been vaccinated against meningococcal.’
Since Zoe’s death in 2017, Kirsten has become a strong advocate for the importance of vaccines and raising awareness of the disease. Especially as it can often be mistaken as something else.
‘It happened very rapidly … and she didn’t have any rash like you see as the tell-tale sign [of meningococcal],’ Kirsten said.
‘Most people would see a rash and probably rush straight to hospital, but if you haven’t seen that rash, then you could associate the other signs – vomiting or fever – with anything.
‘It could be nothing or it could be something very serious. At what point do we think to take them to emergency or to a GP?’
That is the ‘hardest question in the world’ to answer, says Kirsten.
‘When you’ve gone through that pain you think, “If [only] I had done something earlier”, and of course that’s always present in my mind, but from the initial signs I never would have thought that it would be anything, other than perhaps something minor that she had picked up,’ she said.
Almost half (47%) of Australian children’s scheduled meningococcal immunisations were delayed or cancelled over the past 12 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to findings from a March 2021 survey.
Australian parents cancelled or delayed these appointments primarily due to coronavirus lockdown regulations (52%) and concerns about catching COVID-19 in public places (40%).

Moreover, one in four (27%) parents reported they are unlikely to catch up on missed or delayed immunisation appointments.
Vaccine expert and infectious diseases paediatrician Professor Robert Booy told newsGP the survey’s results are concerning.
‘It’s very important ­– meningococcal is a serious disease,’ he said.
‘If you delay a vaccine, you’re going through a period when you’re at high risk of disease. The reason people are vaccinated as babies and as one-year-olds is because that’s when they’re most risk of disease.
‘So if you miss an appointment, you’re putting your baby at risk.’
But it’s not just babies and young children at risk of contracting meningococcal; last month, a 29-year-old man from South Australia died from meningococcal amid a small outbreak in the state.
‘It can affect anyone at any age … and I think we need to particularly focus on that 16­–25 age bracket,’ Kirsten said.

Meningococcal-article.jpgVaccination against meningococcal disease is part of Australia’s National Immunisaton Program.
Saturday 24 April marks World Meningitis Day and healthcare professionals, along with advocates like Kirsten, are urging people to keep on top of their children’s immunisation schedule and not be complacent when it comes to diseases like meningococcal.
Professor Booy said while GPs have a role to inform patients, parents and carers also need to be proactive about getting their children protected, including by booking a new appointment if they’ve missed one and ensuring they have relevant information to help protect their family.
‘GPs can remind parents but … parents who want to protect their children have an onus on them,’ he said.
‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.’
Professor Booy believes following immunisation schedules is one part of a much broader ‘catch-up’ of routine and important medical appointments that may have been missed during COVID-19.
‘[For example,] people need to check their cholesterol, check their blood pressure, they need to get their other vaccinations – not just meningitis. That’s all part of catching up on what happened in the last year,’ he said.
And while COVID-19 continues to have an impact on public health, Professor Booy recommends that routine checks and appointments should continue to be administered.
‘Now that appropriate measures are being taken to support a safe return to clinics, it’s time for parents and patients to reach out to their doctors to catch up on missed appointments,’ he said.
Kirsten wants Zoe’s story to be shared through as many channels as possible to raise awareness about early warning signs of the deadly disease.
‘I’m just trying to advocate as much as I can, when I can, for people to become very familiar with the warning signs of meningococcal, even though they may not see it as being that serious in the beginning,’ she said.  
‘And to get the word out about the importance of speaking to a GP, knowing what your options are as far as vaccinations go. We know we’ve got a [meningococcal] vaccine and it’s readily available.
‘In our current world of COVID, it’s never been more in the forefront of our minds of how important vaccines are, the incredible impact they can have, and how important it is to save more lives through vaccination.’
While most people who contract meningococcal disease will survive and recover fully, up to one in 10 people who contract the disease may die, even with appropriate treatment.
For those who survive, around 20% may suffer long-term disability, including brain damage, deafness or loss of limbs.
As such, Kirsten is hopeful her story will be recognised as a cautionary tale.
‘The more we can get the word out there, the more success we’re going to have in preventing more deaths, especially in young adults and children,’ she said.
‘Not that it takes away any of the pain of losing a child, but … even if one family goes and gets a vaccination and knows that they’re safe, you can only hope that that stops more people from having to experience this terrible sort of thing that happens when you lose a child.
‘Even one life lost is way too many of any disease that can be prevented by vaccine.’
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A.Prof Christopher David Hogan   24/04/2021 9:40:07 PM

I am of an age when immunization against meningococcus was unavailable. On 18 Dec 1975- the day after I graduated- I woke with a headache so bad & vomiting that my wife took me to hospital. 3 hours after I woke, I was unconscious. After a stormy 3 days I regained consciousness .
I survived- with minimal deficit.
I spent my subsequent career as an advocate for the diagnosis & immunisation against the strains of meningococcal disease.