When four Australian states announced free vaccinations for a deadly strain of meningococcal it was welcome news for Perth man Bruce Langoulant, who knows just how devastating the disease can be.
The vaccination program announced this year came in the wake of a big spike in the number of cases of the W strain of the disease.
The program was what Mr Langoulant and others had been pushing for, but they all agree there is still much to be done to protect against the disease, including getting the B strain vaccine added to the national immunisation schedule.
But it was a different strain of the disease altogether which changed the course of Mr Langoulant’s life.
His daughter Ashleigh was six months old when she contracted pneumococcal meningitis before a vaccine for the disease was available.
It was Boxing Day in 1989 and the Langoulants were going to a party.
“On the way there we went to my grandparents’ place and Ash was with us and I put her on the centre of the kitchen table and grandad said to me, ‘Gosh, she’s a picture of health'”, Mr Langoulant said.
Several hours later Ashleigh would not settle so her parents took her home and put her to bed, and the next day she was still unwell.
“I said to Jen, my wife, ‘Ash is a bit unusual this morning, she’s not her usual attentive self, she might be coming down with something.’ and we agreed that Jen would take her to the doctor,” he said.
Ashleigh was given paracetamol and sent home, but her condition continued to deteriorate.
“I had Ash in the palm of my hand, she was lying along my wrist and she was just staring at me and I thought, Wow, what a transition, you aren’t well are you?”
“On reflection I should have done something there and then, but we were young parents doing what we were told to do.”
The next morning, the doctor phoned to ask them to bring their daughter back in, fearing a more sinister diagnosis.
A few hours later Mr Langoulant received another call from the doctor to say he suspected Ashleigh had meningitis.
“I hung up the phone and I thought, meningitis, I’ve heard of that but I really don’t know what it’s about, something to do with the head? I knew by the tone of his voice it was urgent so I just dropped everything and took off up to PMH [Princess Margaret Hospital for Children],” Mr Langoulant said.
“We walked into emergency, she was wailing and screaming and shock overcame me and I just felt the weight go out of my knees and I had to sit down and I started crying, bawled my eyes out, I couldn’t believe it.”
Ashleigh’s life forever changed
Ashleigh survived pneumococcal meningitis, but was left with severe disabilities that would prevent her from ever walking or talking.
“That’s really where Ash is today, she’s trapped in that space,” Mr Langoulant said.
It prompted Mr Langoulant to form The Meningitis Centre.
The centre was successful in getting infants vaccinated against HiB Haemophyllis influenza type b and meningococcal C strains in 1992, both of which are now very rare.
Rates of meningococcal Y have remained fairly steady, but last year there was an increase in the number of cases of a new W strain which caused alarm among epidemiologists.
Fourteen of the 23 meningococcal-related deaths in Australia last year were from the W strain.
The Meningitis Centre pushed for free vaccinations against the strain and its efforts have been rewarded.
Last year WA Health Minister John Day announced a new vaccination program for the Goldfields and earlier this year it was extended to cover the state.
The program is for teenagers aged from 15 to 19, and covers the A, C, W and Y strains.
The governments of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland were quick to follow suit, but Mr Day and the Australian Medical Association want it to be a federally-funded national scheme, so herd immunity can be attained.
B vaccine costly and in short supply
The next challenge facing the Meningitis Centre is to get B strain on the vaccination schedule.
Cases of this strain have remained relatively steady, but it still affected 93 Australians last year.
“It’s a common question to be asked by parents now about the value for them and their children about being vaccinated against the B strain,” Dr Gannon said.
“The B strain has always been the most common strain in Western Australia.”
Bruce Langoulant said until the B vaccine appeared on the schedule, he would continue to encourage all parents to ask their GPs about it.
“The consequences of ending up with an Ashleigh or losing a child are devastating so it’s worth investing that amount of time just to have that discussion and that amount of money to buy peace of mind,” he said.
“If a vaccine was available for Ashley in ’89 and it was on the schedule, she wouldn’t be in this situation.”
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