Meningitis survivor urges parents to take new NHS ‘think pharmacy first’ advice with caution

Toni Sturgeon with son, Bertie. Picture: TONI STURGEON

Toni Sturgeon with son, Bertie. Picture: TONI STURGEON - Credit: TONI STURGEON

Parents are being urged to treat pharmacists as their first port of call for minor illnesses in their children, instead of visiting a GP or A&E.

Tibbs Pinter, chief executive of 4YP. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Tibbs Pinter, chief executive of 4YP. Picture: GREGG BROWN

NHS England has made the call after it emerged 18 million doctor appointments and 2.1m visits to casualty every year are for self-treatable conditions – at a cost of £850m.

However, campaigners fear the advice will result in valuable time being lost when a child comes down with a condition such as meningitis, which can initially present as cold-like symptoms before quickly turning deadly.

Bury St Edmunds raised Toni Sturgeon contracted the illness at the age of 16 when she was on a school skiing trip in Austria.

The now 42-year-old was initially misdiagnosed by a doctor with scarlet fever, before she was found unconscious in her hotel room just hours later.

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“The speed at which it hit was very significant,” said Miss Sturgeon, who has a three-year-old son, Bertie.

“I went from feeling I had a bit of a flu, not even considered that I would be near to death, to maybe six hours later I was incredibly unwell.”

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Miss Sturgeon was rushed to an intensive care unit and thankfully made a full physical recovery, although the ordeal caused psychological damage.

In reaction to the campaign, Miss Sturgeon has urged parents to learn the signs and symptoms of meningitis and to make the sensible choice when seeking health care.

“If you suspect [your child has meningitis] at all I would not go to a pharmacist, I would go straight to A&E,” said Miss Sturgeon, who works as a physiotherapist.

“Get them checked out, worst case scenario if they are not seen quickly enough they die.

“It’s very, very rare but if you have got it time is absolutely of the essence. If you get treated quickly, within hours, you can survive and make a full recovery, but the minutes are ticking – as soon as become unwell you need to get it looked at.”

Welcoming the initiative, Linda Lord, chief pharmacist at West Suffolk NHS Clinical Commissioning Group, said pharmacists were an accessible source of expert health advice.

She added: “Pharmacists are highly-trained professionals and will offer an appropriate over-the-counter treatment or if the condition is more serious advise on the best course of action.”

Tibbs Pinter, chief executive of Suffolk Young Peoples Health Project (4YP), also supports the move, but urged parents to use their common sense.

He said: “My experience of meeting with local pharmacists is they know what they are talking about and they would be the first to say you need to go to a GP.”

The charity is working to launch a new drop-in service where people aged 11-26 in the county can speak to a pharmacist about any minor health concerns.

Andy Yacoub, chief executive of Healthwatch Suffolk, said: “We recognise that our local NHS and care services are under continuing and enduring pressure and that we all have a responsibility to use them appropriately, which will help to manage capacity within the system. We would certainly support that people should make full use of their local pharmacist wherever possible. They are local, accessible and can offer a range of advice on health conditions.

“That said, it can be very challenging for people to identify the right place to seek help and we know that understanding about navigating the system varies from community to community. The NHS and other care services must therefore provide adequate and accessible information for all parents that can help them to make good choices about where to take their child and under what circumstances.”

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