SURVIVOR: Sarah Symes survived viral meningitis and encephalitis five years ago. She believes a new vaccine to protect against meningococcal B should be funded. Photo Kathy Forsyth D7825-04

A WHAKATANE woman who survived meningitis wants to see a new vaccine offered free to families.

Sarah Symes said she was very fortunate to have survived the illness when she was struck down five years ago at the age of 22.

With an outbreak of the meningococcal disease in Northland sparking alarm, Ms Symes is telling her story and believes a new vaccine for meningococcal B needs to be offered free to families as the most vulnerable are the ones who cannot afford it.

The dental assistant said she woke up at 2am one morning five years ago and was numb down the left side of her body. “I got up because I thought I had had a stroke and checked my face but that was normal … It went away so I went back to sleep.”

Ms Symes said her partner woke at 4am as he was leaving for a work trip to Australia.

When she woke later, she was feeling fine, but was concerned that what had happened was not normal.

“I booked an appointment with the doctor … he wasn’t happy that I had gone numb.”

She said the doctor was concerned she might have a brain tumour and advised her to get someone to drive her to hospital.

I went home and phoned lots of people … I waited for a friend to finish at the pools and she came and picked me up.”

“I got to the hospital, they took me in straight away to A&E, but decided it wasn’t that urgent. They made out I was a drama queen and I had done a drug overdose, even though I hadn’t touched drugs in my life.”

Ms Symes said hospital staff were getting ready to discharge her as she had no symptoms.

“They asked my friend if I was a hypochondriac.”

However, suddenly things took a turn for the worse.

“I started going numb again in my face and I tried to communicate with them that I had fish for breakfast and because I had fish the night before I thought maybe it was a reaction to that.

“I started hyperventilating and the nurse gave me a paper bag because she thought I was having a panic attack.

“I couldn’t feel my face, so I didn’t know where I was putting the paper bag.”
That was the last thing she remembers.

“I sort of remember a male doctor’s voice saying ‘can you wake up; can you wake up?’ I could hear them, but I couldn’t respond or do what they were asking me to do.

“The next thing I knew I was waking up from a coma in Tauranga Hospital.”

What she learned afterwards was that she had become very agitated and had started punching out at hospital staff.

“They did a CT (Cat scan), and a lumbar puncture and then they placed me in an induced coma because they didn’t know what they were dealing with.”

They also transferred her to Tauranga Hospital where there was an MRI facility to do a brain scan.

“It was worse for my family because I was unaware of it all. My partner got to Gladstone in Australia and had to wait overnight for a flight back and my dad had to drive up from Wellington. They didn’t know if I was going to make it at that point.”

Tests revealed she had encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, most commonly caused by a viral infection. She also had suspected viral meningitis.

“I was lucky that mine (meningitis) was viral, but because I had the encephalitis as well, I was fighting for my life.

“I looked at the statistics of when you get the two at the same time and it is not a good prognosis, so they didn’t tell my parents. They said she may not wake up and if she does wake up, we don’t know what her brain will be like.”

It took a while to fully recover. “It took a good couple of years before I stopped getting headaches and all that sort of stuff. My memory is not very good.”

She is unsure where she picked up the virus, but thinks it was most likely on the sports field.

“I was playing a social game of rugby with friends on a field a couple of days before and they said I could have put my hand down where someone had spat and then I had gone and eaten and hadn’t washed my hands. We didn’t have facilities to wash our hands.

“I am very anti people spitting on the ground especially on the sports field,” she said.

She said being healthy and fit helped her survive her illness.

“I did CrossFit four to five times a week and I was fit and healthy and had a healthy diet and I think that is what brought me through.”

Ms Symes said she wanted to share her story for several reasons, including because her symptoms were not the usual ones associated with meningitis. These include a severe headache, stiffening of the neck and a rash.

“I had none of the usual symptoms. And if my doctor hadn’t been on to it, I could have gone home, my partner was away for work he wouldn’t have come home, and things could have been so different.

“I did get the rash, but only once I was in the coma, so it was not the typical lead up to meningitis prognosis.”

She also believes the vaccine should be funded.

“If people have been through meningitis or seen their loved ones with meningitis, I think they would be inclined to go get it.

“People are dying, and I just keep seeing anti-vaxxers saying don’t get your child vaccinated and I say put yourselves in these parents’ shoes who have lost children.”

“I think it should be funded because the people that are most vulnerable are the ones who won’t go and pay money to get it.”

She said people living in crowded conditions or in poverty were most at risk of contracting the illness.

“But that isn’t me and I still got it.”

New vaccine for meningococcal B

PARENTS are being urged to immunise infants, toddlers and teens against meningococcal B with a new vaccine.

Last year there were three confirmed cases of meningococcal B in the Bay of Plenty, which represents 4 percent of the total incidence of group B strains which occurred nationwide. A further four cases have been notified in the first six months of 2018 within the Bay.

Around one in every 10 patients who contract the disease will die, and up to one in five survivors will have permanent disabilities; such as brain damage, amputated limbs and hearing loss.

Vaccinologist, senior lecturer in the Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care at Auckland University Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, said meningococcal B was a rapid and unpredictable disease which could cause death within 24 hours.

Due to its flu-like symptoms meningococcal B can be difficult to diagnose but can progress quickly. Along with headaches, fever, and a sore neck, patients may also present with a rash.

The new vaccine, Bexsero, includes the active component of the MeNZB vaccine, as well as three other antigenic components to help improve strain coverage.

Bexsero is not funded on the NZ National Immunisation Schedule but is available for private purchase through healthcare professionals at a cost of about $150 a dose.

Two doses are required, a spokesperson for the Meningitis Foundation told the Beacon.

The vaccine for meningococcal ACWY, called Menactra, is around $130 and only one dose is required.

kathy.forsyth@thebeacon.co.nz