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The virulent meningitis that’s deadly for teenagers

As a typical, fun-loving 18-year-old, Ollie Towler-Jones was used to the occasional hangover — so when he woke up with a crashing headache and nausea after a late night at a music festival in Suffolk, he took a paracetamol and tried to sleep it off.

But when his friends returned to the tent hours later, they found him struggling to breathe and unable to move his legs — which were covered in a purple rash. His mother, Jo, who was also at the festival, arrived at the medical tent to witness a desperate race to save her son’s life.

Just eight hours after he had become unwell, Ollie died. He had contracted meningitis W ST-11 (MenW), a strain of meningococcal bacteria that is particularly deadly for teenagers.

It is on the rise — cases have increased fivefold since 2009 — and with hundreds of thousands of teenagers now in their first weeks at university, where the risk of spreading the disease intensifies, Ollie’s heartbroken mother is speaking out to warn others of the dangers.

Missed: Ollie Towler-Jones, then aged 18, with his mother Jo in 2012

‘It was like a living nightmare,’ says Jo, 45, a hairdresser from Norwich. ‘I lost my sweet, shy son — my only child.

‘When Ollie was little, I was paranoid about him catching meningitis. I never expected it to kill him at 18. I was horrified to learn that thousands of kids Ollie’s age are at risk.’

Around a quarter of this year’s student intake will carry meningococcal bacteria in their noses and throats — and it is spread by close contact such as kissing, sneezing or coughing.

This compares to one in ten of the general population, and although doctors don’t know why teens are so prone to carrying the germs, they suspect it is due to living and partying together.

While the death rate for most strains of meningococcal meningitis is around 5 per cent, for the more aggressive MenW ST-11 strain it is 13 per cent — and around one in three teenagers who contract it dies. Others are left with serious long-term problems, such as deafness, blindness, epilepsy, learning difficulties and amputations.

What makes the MenW strains so dangerous is a capsule coating which makes them particularly resistant to the immune system, explains Simon Kroll, professor of paediatrics at Imperial College London and medical director of the charity Meningitis Now.

The infection can spread rapidly. ‘If caught early enough, MenW can be successfully treated with intravenous antibiotics,’ he says.

Ollie, pictured with Jo over Christmas in 2013, died after contracting meningitis W ST-11

However, the problem is that it often causes gastrointestinal symptoms without the typical headache, rash that doesn’t blanch under the pressure of a glass, or aversion to light that most people associate with meningitis.

‘For this reason, it can look like it isn’t serious in the early stages, as vomiting and diarrhoea are common symptoms generally,’ says Professor Kroll.

‘A misdiagnosis of gastroenteritis can fatally delay starting life-saving treatment.’

Other symptoms of MenW include flu-like illness with fever and shivers, and painful limbs.

‘MenW is most common in small infants, but teenagers leaving home and going to university are particularly at risk as they are mingling with lots of different people in confined environments, such as university halls and pubs, where germ transfer is increased,’ says Professor Kroll.

Ollie¿s mother Jo says she and his father Marc, 43, were always overprotective of their son

‘They are at greater risk of all meningitis strains — but the MenW type has a death rate of 40 per cent among teenagers, often because the symptoms can be easily mistaken for a hangover or stomach bug.’

Ollie’s mother Jo says she and his father Marc, 43, were always overprotective of their son.

‘When Ollie was three, he had a burning fever and I’ll never forget the fear that he had meningitis. I made sure he had the usual vaccinations as he grew up.’

Ollie had a booster MenC vaccine at 17, but missed the MenACWY vaccine now being offered to all children aged 13 to 14.

This vaccination programme — which involves a single jab for four different strains of the meningococcal bacteria: A, C, W and Y —began in August 2015.

New university students and anyone born on or after September 1, 1996 who — like Ollie — missed their routine school vaccination in years 9 and 10, or the catch-up MenACWY vaccination, can get the vaccine from their GP until their 25th birthday.

Ollie left school to begin an apprenticeship with an IT firm. Jo is convinced he contracted MenW on a holiday with friends in Malia, Crete, in July 2014, to celebrate the end of their A-levels.

‘The boys were sharing bottles of drink and straws, cigarettes and kissing girls,’ she says.

When Ollie came home he had ‘a little cough’, but appeared fine otherwise, and went to Latitude Festival a week later. It’s thought partying and not eating properly might have lowered his immunity in the same way it happens to many university students.

On Wednesday, July 16, 2014, Ollie came home from work, then cheerfully waved his mother goodbye. He exchanged texts with his parents at 7pm on Friday evening, arranging to meet at the festival the next day.

Ollie stayed up until the early hours and when he woke, he tried to sleep off his hangover symptoms. But when his pals returned four hours later, he had vomited and was making grunting noises — one of the signs of meningitis.

His complexion had turned grey, with purple blotches behind his ears.

‘At 4pm, I had a text from Ollie’s friend Harry to say he wasn’t well and was being treated in the medical tent,’ says Jo. ‘He said: “He is responsive” and that really made me panic.

‘Marc and I ran from the other side of the festival. A nurse came up and asked me if I was Ollie’s mum. I looked behind her and saw Ollie’s bare feet, which had turned dark grey. A doctor was cutting off his T-shirt and Ollie had an oxygen mask on.

Ollie¿s bedroom remains the same as the day he left for the festival

‘I knelt beside him and said: “I told you not to peak too early.” He smiled and said: “I’m gutted, I’m going to miss Gorillaz”, referring to one of his favourite bands.

‘I told him not to worry and that he’d see them later, and with that, Ollie was whisked off on a stretcher to be airlifted to hospital.’

At the hospital 20 minutes later, Jo found 20 people working on her son. ‘He was on dialysis because his kidneys had failed, and he had tubes in his ankles, wrists and neck,’ she says.

‘The doctors explained he was being put into an induced coma and taken to intensive care, and although they didn’t know what was wrong, they thought it was some form of blood poisoning.

‘We returned to the relatives’ room. Half an hour later, a nurse ran in to say Ollie had suffered a cardiac arrest. Marc and my dad followed her, but I couldn’t move.

‘After another half-hour, Marc returned to say Ollie had died.

Jo is backing a campaign by Meningitis Now, urging new university students to have the MenACWY vaccine

‘I had to be sedated and I remember that even the nurses were in tears.’

Jo is backing a campaign by Meningitis Now, urging new university students to have the MenACWY vaccine.

‘Ollie had a MenC booster seven months before he died. If he had been offered the MenW vaccine, I would have insisted he had it. Yet school-leavers are now sent letters inviting them to have the vaccination — and only 33 per cent actually act on it.’

Professor Kroll says this is partly because while ‘most parents will protect their babies with vaccines, they don’t see robust teenagers as vulnerable’.

He adds: ‘It’s always difficult to get vaccines to anyone outside early childhood, as young people themselves may not be willing to go for the vaccination.’

Mark Hunt, of Meningitis Now, says: ‘It is really important that young people who are starting at university and did not get MenACWY vaccinated before they left home, do so. Student welfare staff at university will be able to provide guidance on how to get the vaccine.’

And teenagers should look out for their friends. ‘Teenagers who fall ill often believe they have hangovers, and sometimes A&E doctors could mistake symptoms for drink or drug use,’ says Professor Kroll. ‘If one of your friends is complaining of a terrible headache and just wants to go to sleep — get medical help.’

At her home in Norwich, where Ollie’s bedroom remains the same as the day he left for the festival, Jo says: ‘Marc and I simply exist now. The only thing we can do is to try to educate other families so no other mother goes through the same as me.’

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