The student Ben de Souza woke up with a pounding head and felt sick. He attributed his symptoms to a hangover and decided to just stay in bed
The student Ben de Souza woke up with a pounding head and felt sick. His symptoms were due to a hangover. He decided to just stay in bed.
Just eight weeks into his senior year at Portsmouth University, Ben had enjoyed student life to the fullest. The night before, he'd worked with friends from the university cricket club.
But during the day he vomited ten times and became more and more sleepy.
"I just couldn't stop being sick and my head felt like it was going to explode," says Ben.
"I thought I drank too much or had the flu, so I decided to stay in my room."
It was a mistake that almost cost Ben his life: 12 hours later, on November 30, 2019, he was taken to the intensive care unit, where he struggled to survive for five days.
The 19-year-old business student from Burgess Hill, West Sussex, had indeed contracted a particularly aggressive form of meningitis B, a variety that is responsible for most cases of bacterial meningitis.
The infection caused by the meningococcal group B bacteria can cause not only meningitis – an infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord – but also meningococcal sepsis, an overreaction of the immune system that leads to tissue damage, organ failure, and death can lead .
Although Ben survived, it almost robbed him of his ability to walk. It took him ten months of intense physical therapy and almost a year off from college to recover.
This week, as thousands of students are returning to the university for the first time since its lockdown, doctors and charities are warning that they could be mistaking meningitis symptoms for Covid and self-isolating instead of seeking urgent medical attention.
"Meningitis works quickly and can kill in a matter of hours," warns Simon Kroll, professor of pediatrics and molecular infectious diseases at Imperial College London and medical director of the Meningitis Now charity. “Intervening early tends to improve results.
"While self-isolation is right for Covid-19, staying away from others when there is a suspicion that it could be something like MenB could be disastrous.
"It is important that young people, especially those moving to university, be aware of this and not assume that a flu-like illness is Covid-19."
According to Public Health England, 305 cases of MenB were reported in England alone last year and the infection was fatal in a tenth of the cases.
This week, as thousands of students are returning to university for the first time since its lockdown, doctors and charities are warning that they may be mistaking meningitis symptoms for Covid and self-isolating instead of seeking urgent medical attention
The bacterium is spread through kissing, coughing, and sneezing, and while it is most common in babies and toddlers, a fifth of cases occur in teenagers and those under the age of 25.
Schoolchildren are particularly at risk not only because they live so close together, but also because up to a quarter of people between the ages of 15 and 24 carry the meningococcal bacteria in their backs, compared to a tenth of the total population.
Another problem is that in some cases, MenB does not always have symptoms commonly associated with meningitis, such as rash and stiff neck, and sometimes feels like a hangover or the flu.
Professor Kroll says symptoms include drowsiness, vomiting, cold hands and feet, fever, confusion, muscle pain, and headache.
“You may see pale, blotchy skin or a rash, but don't wait for this to show. It may not appear – and if it does, it could indicate that sepsis is arriving. "
In 2015, after a five-fold increase in cases of another type of meningitis, MenW, the government began vaccinating teenagers with the ACWY burst, which protects against strains of meningitis A, C, Y, and W, from age 9.
The vaccine is available free of charge to everyone up to the age of 25. According to figures, 80 percent of young people are now vaccinated. However, they may not realize that they are not protected against viral meningitis or certain strains of bacterial meningitis such as B.
Like many other people his age, Ben had received the ACWY kick at school but was not protected against MenB. There is a vaccine for MenB, but the NHS only gives it to babies, even though it is privately available. This means that many young people – and their parents – may not be aware of the risks they face.
"Meningitis and sepsis often go hand-in-hand, and both can kill in hours, leaving those who survive with life-changing effects," warns Professor Kroll.
Ben survived, he says, only because of the vigilance of his five roommates, who heard him throw up and kept checking on him. “They knocked on my door that afternoon to see how I was doing, and I remember asking them to get me Lucozade and paracetamol,” he recalls. After that, he has a fuzzy memory of one of them trying to give him some water.
Unbeknownst to him, his roommates checked him out all night, and when one of them found that Ben had collapsed on his floor at 5 a.m., she immediately called an ambulance.
When the paramedics arrived, Ben couldn't even tell them his name. Shortly after arriving at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth, he passed out and had to be put on a ventilator.
The bacterium is spread through kissing, coughing, and sneezing, and while it's most common in babies and toddlers, a fifth of cases occur in teenagers and those under the age of 25 (file photo)
Within the next few hours, his parents, twin brother Alex, and three older sisters arrived in the intensive care unit.
"We were told that Ben was the sickest patient in the entire hospital, and I knew he might not make it through the night," says his mother Arlene, 56, a former pediatric nurse.
"Even with a medical background, nothing could have prepared me for the shock of seeing my son so unconscious and so seriously ill."
The next few hours were a roller coaster ride: Ben had seriously injured his right lung by swallowing his own vomit shortly after arriving at the hospital.
And while there was no sepsis, the meningitis made his brain swell and it started pressing on his spinal cord – a process called kegel that usually occurs just before death.
Desperate medical professionals pumped saline solution into his body to relieve pressure on the brain, an intervention that no doubt saved his life.
However, an MRI scan later that day revealed that due to the strain on his body, he had two strokes in the area that controls movement and breathing.
Doctors weren't sure if he would survive, but notably, he slowly regained consciousness in the days that followed.
"His medical team told us that if he'd got to the hospital ten minutes later, he wouldn't have survived, and I'll never be able to thank his roommates enough for saving his life," says Arlene. who is now working with Ben with Meningitis Now to raise awareness of the potentially fatal disease.
Ben is returning to university this week to resume his course. This marks the end of a relentlessly challenging time. After six and a half weeks in intensive care, he spent another six and a half weeks in the hospital's rehabilitation unit when he learned to walk again.
The two strokes after the intensive care unit severely affected his mobility and there was a risk that he would end up in a wheelchair. Fortunately, when he left the hospital in February, he was fully mobile again.
"It was tough, but I know I was lucky," says Ben, who hopes to become a naval officer when he leaves university.
"Last week I saw my neurologist who told me my recovery was a miracle and I know that not everyone is so happy."
According to studies by the Meningitis Research Foundation, one in five meningitis survivors around the world has permanent effects such as loss of a limb, brain injury, memory problems, or impaired vision or hearing.
With the world focused on the pandemic, it's easy to forget that there are other serious diseases out there, says Dr. Tom Nutt, CEO of Meningitis Now.
“Our message to parents in the fight against uncertainty about living conditions in universities and online tutorials is that their children are aware of the signs of meningitis.
"If you're feeling uncomfortable, don't assume it's Covid-19 or a hangover." If you are not sure, you must call NHS 111 immediately. "
Ben couldn't agree more. "I wish I had realized how sick I was and got help sooner," he says.
"I would tell anyone, whatever your age, if you are really uncomfortable, don't be mutually exclusive." When in doubt, scream! "
Pharmacist Gemma Fromage reveals the unexpected uses for everyday products. This week: turmeric for arthritis.
Turmeric – the yellow spice in curry – has a number of health benefits. Research has shown that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, not only has antioxidant properties that protect cells from damage, but also has anti-inflammatory benefits that are believed to help arthritis.
When patients with moderate knee osteoarthritis were given curcumin-containing capsules daily for six weeks, they showed improvements in pain and physical function, the journal Phytotherapy Research reported in 2014.
A second study in the same journal compared three groups, one taking curcumin, the second anti-inflammatory (diclofenac sodium), and the third a combination of the two.
All three groups showed improvement in disease activity scores, but the curcumin-only group showed the greatest improvement.
If you are considering turmeric supplements, speak to your doctor and do not stop taking medication regularly without medical advice.
Turmeric – the yellow spice in curry – has a number of health benefits. Research has shown that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, not only possesses antioxidant properties that protect cells from damage, but also has anti-inflammatory benefits that are said to help arthritis (file photo)
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