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Calls for Meningococcal B vaccine to be added to Victorian government immunisation schedule

The mum of a teenage girl who died suddenly from meningococcal disease is pleading with medical authorities to make a vaccine free for all Victorian children.

Abby McGrath’s daughter Emma-Kate was 19 years old when she contracted meningococcal, a quickly developing contagious disease that can be fatal.

Health experts say early diagnosis and treatment of the disease is vital.

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“From the time Emma got sick to the time that we lost her, it was only 15 hours,” she told 7NEWS.

McGrath thought her daughter had been immunised against the disease, but did not realise there were several different strains.

Major development after young woman’s death from sudden illness

“She’d only be immunised against (meningococcal) C,” she said.

When Emma-Kate got sick, it initially presented as if she had a cold or flu.

“Emma came to me in the early hours of the morning saying she felt unwell, she had a temperature,” McGrath said, adding she then progressed to vomiting and diarrhoea.

“We thought it was a virus.”

McGrath checked for a stiff neck and the red rash – a common symptom of meningococcal, but “none of that was there at that stage”.

She said she wanted to take her daughter to hospital but Emma-Kate, who was studying nursing and paramedicine at university, believed she just had a virus.

“The next day she was getting worse and by 11am I ended up calling an ambulance because I just knew deep down there was something really wrong,” McGrath said.

“Once we got her to hospital, it all happened very, very quickly.”

“Before we knew it, we were in a resus (resuscitation) room with lots of doctors and nurses looking after Emma.

“I was standing at the top of Emma’s head saying it would be OK. I had tears running down my face.”

Emma Kate died from meningococcal disease at 19 years old. Credit: 7NEWS

McGrath remembers Emma-Kate looking up at her and saying, “It’s OK, mum”.

“Then she was taken up to ICU to be put into an induced coma to treat her more aggressively,” she said.

“At no stage were we aware or even thought we were saying goodbye to our daughter.

“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’.”

Emma-Kate was septic and her organs were shutting down faster than doctors could save them.

“Eventually, 15 hours later, we lost Emma … it still is a massive struggle to this day for our family,” McGrath said.

McGrath is among those pleading for the state government to fund a life-saving vaccine to protect against meningococcal B.

Last year, strain B caused the majority of meningococcal cases, and there have been almost 70 reports of it in Australia so far this year.

“It’s more than a 45 per cent increase on where we were at this time last year,” said Meningitis Centre Australia CEO Karen Quick.

“Right now, only the A, C, W, Y strain is on the national plan, so the B vaccine costs families hundreds of dollars per jab.”

Or, in Emma-Kate’s case, the vaccine can get overlooked.

“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,” McGrath said.

The Victorian government says it is guided by health advice set by the Commonwealth when it comes to vaccine eligibility.

However, Queensland and South Australia introduced changes to their vaccination plans to include the B strain.

The national program makes the meningococcal B vaccine free only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infants and immunocompromised people.

This is despite a recommendation in 2014 by the federal advisory body ATAGI that it also be made free to all young children and teens.

A vaccine for other meningococcal strains is free under the national program for children aged 12 months, 14 to 16-year-olds and immunocompromised people.

“It’s a vaccine-preventable disease. We’ve just got to stop the madness now,” Quick said.

– With Sara Jones and AAP

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