Childhood viral and bacterial illnesses are common, and usually are easily treated. Sometimes, however, if the symptoms are left too long and the infection is allowed to worsen, children can become seriously unwell and sepsis can develop, which can cause damage to the body’s tissues and organs, including the brain, leading to life-long disabilities.
In this article, we talk about sepsis, the condition that can arise when an infection is not treated quickly or effectively enough, how this can lead to brain damage, and where to seek support if your child has been affected.
Sepsis – what is it?
Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that arises when the body mounts an extreme response to infection and starts to cause damage to its own tissues and organs. Left untreated, it can lead to ‘septic shock’, multi-organ failure, and even death. Sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Sepsis – the signs and symptoms
The Sepsis Trust advises that a child under 5 may have sepsis if they are not feeding; are vomiting repeatedly; and/or have not passed urine for 12 hours.
The Sepsis Trust further advises that a child over 5 may have sepsis if they are breathing very fast; have a ‘fit’ or convulsion; look mottled, bluish or pale; have a rash that does not fade when you press it; are very lethargic or difficult to wake; and/or feel abnormally cold to touch.
Medical advice should be sought immediately if sepsis is suspected.*
Sepsis – potential consequences and brain injury
Sepsis can develop from common childhood illnesses, such as respiratory infections, tonsilitis and ear infections, or following cuts, grazes, and open wounds if bacteria gets into a child’s blood stream.
If sepsis is not identified and treated quickly, it can lead to shock, multiple organ failure, including brain injury and sometimes death. It can also cause ischaemic damage to limbs and extremities, leading to the need for limb amputation.
As the symptoms of sepsis can be like those of other conditions, it is a diagnosis that can be missed leading to delays in treatment. This is particularly the case with children, where symptoms can sometimes be confused with or put down to more common and less serious childhood illness. Parents, or those who care for a child, know the child best and often instinctively know when something is not right. Medical professionals should be alert to this when assessing an ill child and should take a thorough history and listen to all the parents or child’s carer’s concerns. There is also national guidance for doctors to follow, issued by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), for assessing an unwell child with fever or suspected infection.
One of our clients, Charlie, was left with a serious brain injury following delayed diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia following an infection with Group A Strep. Charlie was eventually admitted to hospital where sepsis was recognised but not treated adequately, causing Charlie to suffer from multi-organ failure and multiple cardiac arrests, leaving him with a hypoxic brain injury. Click here to read Charlie’s story Charlies Story : Delayed diagnosis of sepsis leading to cardiac arrest and brain injury (clmedilaw.co.uk) or watch the video below.
Last Winter, the UK saw a steep increase of Group A Strep infections in young children, which led to a rise in children becoming seriously unwell and needing hospital treatment. Strep A usually causes a sore throat, skin rash or Scarlet fever, or can lead to other conditions such as pneumonia. If not treated correctly, it can develop into sepsis and lead to more serious consequences, like in Charlie’s case.
Sepsis – where to seek support
When sepsis causes a brain injury, the impact on the child’s life and their families can be profound. The child may have significant needs and require considerable rehabilitation and support, including:
- Additional care and assistance with personal hygiene, feedings, and engagement with day to day activities;
- Mobility aids;
- Sensory aids if sight or hearing has been impacted;
- Therapies such as physiotherapy, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy;
- Adapted accommodation;
- Support with schooling and education, potentially requiring an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP);
- Assistive Technology
Funding and provision of rehabilitation and care usually comes from the NHS or from other statutory services, but provision can often be inconsistent and inadequate, meaning parents and carers need to have regular battles to get what their child needs.
If you have a child who has suffered from sepsis and you have concerns about a delay in diagnosis, or how their treatment was managed, the starting point might be to make a complaint via the NHS complaints process: https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/about-the-nhs/how-to-complain-to-the-nhs/ or directly to the hospital or medical care provider involved.
It may also be appropriate to seek legal advice from specialist medical negligence solicitors who have experience with child brain injury claims to see if there are grounds for a compensation claim. Compensation can be one of the most comprehensive forms of funding for a child’s rehabilitation needs following brain injury. Although bringing a claim cannot reverse the damage caused, it can make a life-changing difference to the whole family relieving a huge financial and emotional pressure and enabling the child to recover some independence and quality of life. Find out more about compensation claims following brain injury here https://clmedilaw.co.uk/brain-injury-compensation/
There are also a number of organisations that provide information, help and support for those living with brain injury following sepsis including, of course, Cerebra. Other sources of support include:
- The UK Sepsis Trust – contact their support helpline on 0808 800 0029 or visit their website – https://sepsistrust.org/
- The Limbo Foundation – if your child has lost a limb due to sepsis this charity has a support group you can join via their website – https://limbbofoundation.co.uk/
- Sepsis Research Feat – https://sepsisresearch.org.uk/sepsis-in-children/
Laura Cook is a Partner at CL Medilaw who works closely with many families with children who have acquired a brain injury due to negligent medical care. CL Medilaw are dedicated to changing the lives of their clients by making legal matters as straight forward as possible and securing early provision of support to really make a difference to the families they represent. You can contact us either by email at [email protected] or by telephone on 0345 2410 154.
* the information in this article is not intended to replace medical advice. If you have concerns about anybody who is unwell, please seek advice from your local medical provider or NHS 111.
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