New research is first step in cutting child deaths from treatable infections

18 Dec 2017
New research is first step in cutting child deaths from treatable infections

Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) is one of a number of organisations supporting new research that will investigate why fatal delays in hospitalisation of children unwell with infections occur.

The UK has more childhood deaths from treatable infections than comparable European countries.

Sweden and Italy both have better survival rates from conditions such as pneumonia and sepsis, and the hope is this project will identify ways to speed up admissions, and ultimately save lives.

Launched today, the 18-month study will investigate concerns raised by Melissa Mead and Sue Morrish, who both lost sons to sepsis after high profile failures in the health system.

Led by the University of Northampton, the ‘Before Arrival at Hospital: Factors affecting timing of admission to hospital with serious infectious illness’ (BeArH) research project will examine in detail, incidents of serious infection in children under five years of age - from the moment a parent realises their child is ill, through contact with frontline health services, to their child’s subsequent admission to hospital.

The research aims to identify those points in this process where improvements can be made.

Associate Professor of Children’s Nursing, Sarah Neill, is leading the NIHR-funded project along with Dr Amardeep Heer from Lakeside Healthcare, the largest general practice in the NHS.

“Many of these deaths could be avoided, as infections such as meningitis and pneumonia are potentially treatable if caught early enough." - Professor Neill

Professor Neill, University of Northampton said: “Infection is a major cause of avoidable childhood deaths in the UK, particularly in the under-fives, yet we know little about the factors that influence when children are admitted to hospital.

These factors may range from aspects of individual children and their family situations, through to the responses of GP surgeries, NHS helplines or A&E departments, she added.

Many of these deaths could be avoided, as infections such as meningitis and pneumonia are potentially treatable if caught early enough.

Parents often find it difficult to access relevant health information or to interpret symptoms. It can even be difficult for GPs to determine how serious a case is in the early stages.

Identifying all the steps before hospital admission that could be improved is vital if we are to spare other families the heartache that Melissa and Sue have had to go through.

Twelve month old William Mead died from blood poisoning in 2014 after both the NHS 111 helpline and GPs failed to recognise his condition. Sam Morrish was three years old when, in 2010, he too died from sepsis in what the official report called “a catalogue of errors” by the health services.

Prof Neill said: “This project will be examining every stage in the child’s journey to see where delays may occur. This might be due to lack of easily accessible, reliable information for parents on symptoms, errors in information sharing between different parts of the NHS, or delays in being seen in an emergency department. Whatever it is, the information we gather will help us to design service improvements so that children get the help they need more quickly.”

".. we look forward to supporting the study investigators to find out what needs to change in order to prevent tragedies like those of William and Sam in future." - Linda Glennie, MRF

Linda Glennie, Head of Research at MRF said, “We are delighted to be involved in this important research. Meningitis and septicaemia are deadly diseases that strike without warning and leave a third of survivors with life altering after effects. Rapid identification and treatment provides the best chance of survival and we look forward to supporting the study investigators to find out what needs to change in order to prevent tragedies like those of William and Sam in future."

Data for this study will be collected from the catchment areas of the hospitals participating in the study.

The project has three strands – the first will look at the health services available to parents in each area, and review investigations into previous cases of serious infection - including child death reviews, critical incident reports, and hospital and ambulance usage data.

The next will involve specially trained nurses identifying parents of children being cared for in high dependency or intensive care with a serious infection.

Once their child is well enough to move to a children’s ward, the parents will be approached to take part in the study, and interviewed once their child is home again. With parent’s permission, health professionals involved in their child’s pre-hospital care will be interviewed separately, to get a fuller understanding of the child’s journey to hospital.

The final strand will involve focus groups with parents whose child had a serious infectious illness in the last two years, as well as separate focus groups with health care professionals who’ve had experience of caring for such children.

All of this data will be combined to produce a theory which explains how identified factors affect the point at which ill children are admitted to hospital.

The BeArH study has received £147,000 funding from the NIHR, the research arm of the NHS, and will run until May 2019.

The other partners contributing to the research are the Kettering General Hospital, Leicester’s Hospitals, Northamptonshire Healthcare Foundation Trust, University of Leicester, University of Liverpool, Edge Hill University, Meningitis Now and the Mother’s Instinct support group.

Several other charities are also supporting the research, including MRF, the UK Sepsis Trust, WellChild and the Encephalitis Society.

Findings from this project will identify how services need to change. The next project will work with parents and health services to make these changes and evaluate the impact.

Media contact

For more information on this story contact Media Relations Manager Sam Williams on 07875 498047 or by email

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