THE death of a child or teenager shatters and devastates families under any circumstances.
But where that death is preventable, there is tragedy.
A condition like meningococcal disease – notoriously difficult to diagnose, striking swiftly and without warning, and with a mortality rate of up to 10 per cent despite our expectations of modern medicine – strikes fear into the community because its victims are so often children and young people.
Children under 5 years old and teenagers aged 15-19 have experienced the highest rates of meningococcal disease, which is why national and state immunisation programs have concentrated on protecting those age groups.
University student Mischelle Rhodes’ death at Gosford Hospital on August 29, aged just 19, shows why governments have put a lot of resources into those programs. The bright, beautiful and talented young woman fell ill with the kind of symptoms common to a number of conditions at this time of year, went to Gosford Hospital, went home with painkillers and died the next day. It is every parent’s nightmare.
Gosford and Wyong hospitals have a tragic history of child and teen meningococcal deaths that occurred between 1999 and 2007. Charissa Tsouvallas, 18, Stephen Sanig, 7, Rebecca Calverley, 7, and Gabrielle Coventry, 14, died of the condition before meningococcal immunisation programs covering different strains were broadly available. They also died because of significant failures in the health system, at a time when Central Coast public hospitals were struggling to cope with booming population growth.
While the health system responded with major changes in how it responded to people presenting at emergency with the kind of symptoms that could indicate meningococcal, immunisation programs, better resourcing and education, four families lost their children.
Said Michael Sanig, whose then wife Sue-Anne was sent home from Gosford Hospital with painkillers for son Stephen in 2001 before his death a few hours later: “You never get over your child’s death.”
It’s the reason why it is right for the community to demand transparency and accountability from its health service when things go tragically wrong.