Former England rugby player Matt Dawson has launched a new campaign to raise awareness of the early signs and symptoms of meningitis. The campaign ‘Cotton-on to Meningitis: Let’s Tackle it Together’ is supported by both UK charities Meningitis Research Foundation and Meningitis NOW. In this interview with My Baba, Matt Dawson opens up following his family’s own battle with the disease. Dawson’s son was left critically ill in an induced coma on a life support machine aged just two years old. We’re joining Matt in his quest to support calls for more children to be vaccinated against meningitis, and to help educate people on the early symptoms of the disease.
Tell us about your family’s experience with Meningitis – when did the alarm bells ring?
My youngest son Sami contracted meningitis a few years ago when he was two years old. We were completely unprepared and unaware of the signs. Sami started showing symptoms when he woke up one morning. He hadn’t slept well and had a fever. We kept him home from nursery, but my wife Carolin and I both felt that there was something not quite right. He had freezing hands even though he was sweating. He was nauseous too, but we still weren’t speaking about meningitis.
He didn’t have the rash which is the only symptom we knew to look for. If we had a bit more knowledge we would have known that cold hands and feet are one of the earliest signs. It was ignorance on our part but we have since found out that many parents don’t know this. If I had known cold hands and feet were a symptom I would have insisted that we went to hospital hours earlier. We were lucky, but in some circumstances, that’s the difference between living and dying.
We called our GP who told us to go straight to hospital. The traffic was bad, so we decided not to go to the West Middlesex hospital which is probably the closest one to us, but instead went into town to the Chelsea & Westminster. As it happened that decision made a big difference as the Chelsea and Westminster had a specialist unit.
What were the symptoms Sami suffered from that you weren’t aware were associated with meningitis? Everybody is obsessed with the rash.
Babies, children and young adults are all at risk of meningitis and as parents we all want to do the best for our children, so it’s important that we are fully aware of the symptoms. The rash is commonly thought of as an early sign but often appears later on or not at all. I urge parents not to wait for the rash, but to learn about early symptoms and to speak with a GP or pharmacist about ways to prevent meningitis. Symptoms of meningitis can develop rapidly. The first symptoms are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell. Limb pain, pale skin, and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than the rash (which doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it), neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and confusion.
How long did it take Sami to recover and how did he deal with the situation?
Sami was put in an induced coma as he battled the disease at Great Ormond Street hospital where he had been moved to. He was there for about three weeks, but when he woke from the coma, thankfully he recovered quite quickly. We were very lucky to have such great support from the team at Great Ormond Street. We have another son Alex, now 6, and he still can’t look at the photos of Sami when he was ill.
How has this affected you all as a family?
We are a very close family and that awful time in 2016 has only made us stronger. Thankfully, the meningitis hasn’t left Sami with any long term of lasting effects, and he is enjoying the lively life of a 4 year old. He has just started at school. He has got a few scars on his legs and arms from the meningitis, they don’t affect him in anyway and they are like war wounds to him. Sami remembers it fondly, he knows that he was poorly and that his doctors looked after him very well. He doesn’t mind going back to hospital for his yearly check-up, and he is very positive.
What’s your advice for parents who may find themselves in this desperate situation?
Trust your instincts and act fast. You know your children better than anyone so if you think something doesn’t look right, get to the nearest medical help immediately. If you know the signs and symptoms, and are armed with that knowledge, it can make all the difference.
What are you doing to raise awareness of the disease?
After Sami had recovered and we knew he was OK, we wanted to do something to raise awareness. Together with GSK and the two advocacy groups, Meningitis Research Foundation, and Meningitis Now, we created the Tackle Meningitis campaign. We don’t want to over complicate things or overload people with loads of information, but knowing the signs and symptoms to look out for, and the ways of preventing meningitis, will give people the best fighting chance against this devastating disease. We are asking everyone to visit www.tacklemeningitis.org to find out more.