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Claims for misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of meningitis

Posted: 18/07/2016


Meningitis is a very frightening and serious disease which, if not identified and treated quickly, can result in serious long term disability and, in some cases, death. Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord (meninges) and can come in several forms. In most cases, viral meningitis is not serious and the patient will recover without treatment. But bacterial  meningitis is a serious condition that requires immediate treatment to avoid potentially fatal damage being caused.

Unfortunately, in the early stages, bacterial meningitis is often dismissed as a viral illness or ‘the flu’ by healthcare professionals, despite indicators that it is something more sinister. A failure to investigate the possibility of meningitis or a bacterial infection means that the early window of opportunity for prompt diagnosis, correct treatment and a good outcome is missed.

The long term effects of meningitis where it is not diagnosed quickly include deafness, blindness and brain damage leaving the patient with associated conditions like epilepsy and learning difficulties.

Symptoms of meningitis include:

  • fever
  • mental status changes
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • severe headache
  • stiff neck
  • decreased consciousness
  • poor feeding or irritability in children
  • rapid breathing
  • unusual posture, with the head and neck arched backwards
  • pale, blotchy skin, spots or a rash.

Investigations for suspected bacterial meningitis include a lumbar puncture (where spinal fluid is collected and tested for the presence of infection), blood cultures, scans and X-rays. If bacterial meningitis is suspected, the early administration of antibiotics is critical. Part of the problem with obtaining a prompt diagnosis of bacterial meningitis is that some of the symptoms are exactly the same for someone suffering from the flu or a viral illness. It is therefore vital that health professionals look for signs and symptoms that indicate that a patient’s presentation is something more than a virus or flu – particularly in small children where they cannot communicate what they are feeling.

Philippa Luscombe, partner in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches, comments: “We have extensive experience of dealing with children and adults who have suffered permanent disability arising out of a negligently missed or delayed diagnosis of meningitis. All too often, people - and most commonly parents with small children -  are sent away with a reassurance that it is ‘just the flu’ or something similar because a health professional has failed to investigate the full history or respond to something indicating that the condition may be something more sinister than a common virus.

“Charities like Meningitis Now and the Meningitis Research Foundation do a great job in improving both public awareness and medical training about spotting meningitis. One hopes that more patients will be caught and treated early to maximise their changes of a full recovery.”

For examples of the some of the cases handled by Penningtons Manches, click on the following links:

Please feel free to contact us free on 0800 328 9545 or email us on clinnegspecialist@penningtons.co.uk if you have concerns about medical treatment related to meningitis. All initial advice is without charge or obligation.


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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP