Doctors failures being used to usher in poisonous meningitis vaccine

Children left disabled by meningitis after GPs failed to diagnose them are paid £28m in compensation

Medical Defence Union, which made the payments on behalf of doctors, issued the stats as a warning to GPs of the dangers of missing meningitis
Many cases settle for more than £1m because of the cost of caring for a disabled person for the rest of their life
The compensation bill has put pressure on the Government to sanction use of a meningitis B vaccine, which was rejected on the grounds it was not cost-effective

PUBLISHED: 17:11, 18 September 2013 | UPDATED: 17:11, 18 September 2013

Millions of pounds a year are being paid out in compensation for childhood meningitis cases missed by GPs, new figures have reveal.

Between 2008 and 2012, at least £28 million was given to families of children left permanently disabled as a result of GPs’ failure to diagnose the deadly infection, or refer suspected cases for emergency treatment.

The Medical Defence Union, which made the payments on behalf of doctors in its insurance scheme, issued the alarming statistics recently as a warning to members of the dangers of missing meningitis.

One case involved a sum of £2.5million following a failure to refer a four-year-old child to hospital by a GP working out of hours.

The child was later diagnosed with meningitis B and suffered severe disabilities, including the loss of a leg.

The MDU said it is not unusual for cases to settle for well in excess of £1m because of the cost of providing care for disabled patients for the rest of their lives.

Of the 17 claims it settled in the four year period, five involved out-of-hours consultations and two, home visits.

The mounting compensation bill has renewed pressure for the Department of Health to sanction the use of a new meningitis B vaccine, which was rejected in July by a panel of experts on the grounds that it was not cost-effective.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, made up infectious disease experts, ruled against the life-saving jab and said more research was needed to confirm it was worth the cost of giving it to all infants.

But meningitis charities last night said the soaring compensation pay-outs highlight the need for the vaccine to be introduced immediately.

‘We think this strengthens the argument for the vaccine to be introduced as soon as possible,’ said Linda Glennie, head of research and medical information at the Meningitis Research Foundation.

‘We know from our own research that 50 per cent of children with meningococcal disease are sent home the first time they see their GP.

‘Yet these compensation payments are not included in the cost-effectiveness analysis on the vaccine.’

The Foundation says millions more have been paid out by NHS hospital trusts over the last decade for children and adults harmed by failure to spot meningitis.

It says that money came from funds that would otherwise have been spent on patient care.

In 2011, schoolgirl Lydia Cross won a £1.78m payout after losing both her legs as a baby when a GP refused to carry out a home visit, despite pleas from her parents Tony and Jodie Cross, from Braunton in Devon.

Lydia – now aged 12 – hopes to take part in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, racing the 100 metres on blades similar to those made famous by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius.

Dr Sharmala Moodley, deputy head of claims at the MDU, said: ‘Meningitis is thankfully a rare disease, meaning most GPs will only see one or two cases in a lifetime of practice.

‘But failure to diagnose it can have devastating consequences for patients, some of whom will suffer irreversible injuries such as brain damage, loss of limbs and organ damage.

‘This is reflected in the high costs of compensation payments, especially where cases involve children who may need care for many years to come.’

She said GPs faced a major challenge because the early features of meningitis are often the same as those of minor viral illnesses.

A vaccine against the meningitis C strain, introduced more than a decade ago, is thought to have saved thousands of lives.

But the deadly B strain still strikes around 1,800 people a year, killing one in ten. The vast majority are children under five.

Tests suggest the vaccine, called Bexsero, is effective against 73 per cent of the different subtypes of meningitis B.

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