19-year-old Emma-Kate McGrath woke up one night feeling sick. She had a fever and experienced vomiting and diarrhoea throughout the night.
Just 15 hours later, she died from meningococcal B, a deadly condition that continues to kill several children and adults every year. Children under five and those aged 15 to 25 are at the greatest risk of the disease.
‘It’s okay, mum’
Prior to falling ill, Emma-Kate was healthy, fit, and excited about her future. She had just started studying for a nursing/paramedicine degree at university and was loved by her family, friends, and school community. The Ballarat teen had the world at her feet and, assumed she just had a stomach bug.
However, by 11am, her mum, Abby McGrath, knew something else was going on. Abby checked for a stiff neck and the red rash – a common symptom of meningococcal, but “none of that was there at that stage”.
“I ended up calling an ambulance because I just knew deep down there was something really wrong,” Abby recalled. “Once we got her to hospital, it all happened very, very quickly.”
Abby remembers her daughter looking up at her from the ICU hospital bed saying, ‘”It’s OK, mum”.
Just moments later she was placed in an induced coma. She was diagnosed with meningococcal B which had already invaded her bloodstream, and her internal organs which began shutting down. The last symptom Emma-Kate experienced was a purple rash all over her body.
‘Didn’t know we were saying goodbye to our daughter’
Emma died in 2017 and ever since that day, her family has struggled with her sudden death. They have also fought tirelessly to ensure a life-saving vaccine for Meningococcal B becomes more accessible.
“At no stage were we aware or even thought we were saying goodbye to our daughter,” Ms McGrath told 7news.com.au. “We kissed her, told her we loved her so much. I said, “I’ll see you in a few days and I’m not going to leave your side. From the time Emma got sick to the time that we lost her, it was only 15 hours.”
Emma-Kate was vaccinated against Meningococcal C, but she wasn’t vaccinated against other strains. Her mother wasn’t aware of just how dangerous the other strains could be and said her daughter would have been better protected had they known about other strains.
“Our family would not be suffering like we do every single day if she had been vaccinated and that’s the most heartbreaking thing. This could have been prevented,” she said.
Teen’s death sparks change
Abby is now begging other parents to be aware of how dangerous this strain can be and to look into vaccination. She is also calling for the Victorian government to make the Meningococcal B vaccine free for everyone.
In Victoria, where Emma-Kate lived, Vaccines for A, C, W, and Y strains are available for children aged 12 months and teens under the national immunisation program. However, the B strain vaccine costs hundreds of dollars per jab, despite being the most common strain of meningococcal in Australia.
In Queensland, the meningococcal B vaccine has been recently added to the state’s early childhood and school immunisation programs, making it free for children under two and those aged 15-19.
In South Australia, the B strain vaccine is also covered under its vaccination program.
About meningococcal disease
Meningococcal disease is a rare but potentially life-threatening bacterial infection. While it’s not common, babies, young children and teens are most at risk of the disease, though it can affect adults also. Meningococcal disease progresses very quickly so it’s important to be aware of the meningococcal symptoms.
Early symptoms of meningococcal:
- High fever
- Refusal to eat
- Difficulty waking or extreme tiredness
- High-pitched or moaning cry
- Vomiting and diarrhoea
- Pale, grey or blotchy skin
- Sensitivity to light
- Cold hands and feet
- In infants, a bulging fontanelle (the soft spot on top of the head)
Trust your gut and seek help!
If your child is not their usual self, showing any of the above symptoms or even if your parent gut instinct is telling you something is not quite right, PLEASE seek advice from your doctor. If your child’s ill health continues or gets worse, don’t hesitate to head straight into your local hospital’s emergency department.