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Tuesday, January 19, 1999 Published at 18:22 GMT


Meningitis damages total £3.1m

Meningitis is easy to diagnose in its later stages

More money has been paid out in claims against GPs who have failed to diagnose meningitis than for any other category of medical negligence, according to a doctors' defence body.

Missed diagnoses of the disease accounted for 1% of claims, but represented 24% of the total amount paid out by the Medical Protection Society (MPS) between 1984 and 1996.

Easy-to-miss symptoms and the devastating effects of the disease contributed to both the number of claims and the huge levels of compensation awarded, doctors said.

The figures are published following a number of cases around the New Year, in which more than 30 people, mostly babies and young children, died.

Last week, the High Court awarded a record £1.9m in damages to an eight-year-old girl who was left severely brain-damaged after doctors failed to spot meningitis when she was five months old.

Inflammatory disease

Meningitis is an inflammation of the brain lining and is mostly caused by bacteria and viruses. The bacterial forms, meningococcal and pneumococcal meningitis, are life-threatening.

[ image: Vaccination progrqammes followed the recent cases]
Vaccination progrqammes followed the recent cases
There are between 2,500 and 3,000 cases a year in the UK. Most do not cause lasting damage, but, in a few cases, sufferers may die.

The MPS, which represents 15,000 GPs, said it had paid out £3.1m to 30 victims of "missed meningitis" since 1990, including a £1.6m million settlement in 1997.

Medical defence specialists say a Law Lords ruling on calculating damages could mean that some individual awards for meningitis might exceed £3m in the near future.

The MPS has sent advice to members on how to identify the disease and avoid potentially expensive legal claims.

The government's Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson is to issue the second set of guidelines on meningitis to GPs in the space of four months following the recent spate of deaths.

Degree of suffering

Director of policy for the MPS Dr Gerard Panting said: "The damages paid out in cases of missed meningitis are often high because of the degree and range of injury suffered.

"Missed meningitis resulting in profound deafness could result in damages of around £100,000, while people suffering severe brain damage could now receive around £3m."

He added: "Meningitis, although it receives a lot of publicity, is not that common.

"It can be devastating in its consequences but can be very difficult to diagnose in its early stages.

"Parents and teachers and other people are now very aware of the disease and are on the alert.

"But doctors when they are seeing someone for the first time have got to look at all the possibilities.

Early difficulties

"The earlier you see someone the more difficult it is and therefore we have found people who have been advised that there is nothing serious that can be found and at that time the doctor is probably right.

"But then they go on to to develop other signs and by the later stages it may be that damage has already taken place."

A spokeswoman for the National Meningitis Trust said: "We agree that it is difficult to spot meningitis in its early stages.

"Most doctors may see only one case of the disease in their careers but will see thousands of cases of flu and other illnesses with similar symptoms to meningitis."

She added: "What we would say is that GPs should listen very carefully to patients and what they are saying as they know their children best.

"We have seen cases where parents have had to go to their doctor two or three times before meningitis is diagnosed and in some of those cases the child has later died."

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