Parents tell of meningitis girl's bravery

Father hopes death can heighten public awareness of illness. Liz Hunt reports

Schoolfriends of the five-year-old meningitis victim Emma Harris, who died on Boxing Day, gathered to say goodbye to her yesterday as she was buried in a churchyard near her home in West Sussex.

The parents of Alexandra Yates, Emma's close friend and the second victim of the outbreak at the village school, attended the service at St Margaret's Church in Rottingdean, near Brighton. Alexandra, also five, died on Tuesday evening of a form of blood-poisoning, a rare complication of bacterial meningitis.

Earlier, her mother, Elizabeth Yates, had broken down in tears as she described her daughter's fight against the disease. "Alexandra fought so hard to stay alive but she could not make it."

Mrs Yates said that Alexandra's last words were spoken at the Royal Alexandra Children's Hospital in Brighton where she was first admitted in the early hours of Boxing Day. "She said, `Mummy, I want a cuddle'."

Her father, Alan, who had shared the bedside vigil at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said he hoped that his daughter's death would heighten awareness of meningitis and the speed with which it can strike.

"This has been a long 10 days. We have just been hoping one day to the next that Alexandra would pull through. We always thought there was a chance. She just tried so hard to stay alive. We will remember her with so much pleasure and we want her friends to remember her with so much pleasure. We do not want people to shy away from talking about her. She was a loving, caring girl, unusually so for someone so little."

Health officials in the area believe that the outbreak has been contained. However, they will take swabs from all 220 pupils at the Rottingdean Church of England Primary School, when the new term starts next week.

Mrs Yates said that the first sign her daughter was ill had been when she had not wanted her Christmas lunch. "She developed a high temperature and said her neck hurt a bit. I realised she had a virus and called the doctor.

"He diagnosed her as having a virus and told me to sponge her to bring her temperature down. I took her into bed with me. I just sat and watched her. Then I noticed a blotch on her forehead and found others on her body. Once the blotches came I knew the symptoms of meningitis..."

She was admitted to the Royal Sussex County Hospital and then transferred to the Royal Alexandra. It was there that the link between Alexandra, Emma and the school they both attended was realised. Over the Christmas/New Year period health officials traced all the girls' contacts, who have now been vaccinated or given antibiotics. Both girls were infected with a rare subtype of the Type C strain of the bacterium.

Alexandra's condition deteriorated further on Boxing Day and she was transferred to Guy's Hospital, London, and then to Great Ormond Street, one of only five hospitals in the UK to have special equipment which, it was hoped, would allow her blood to bypass her failed lungs and give them a chance to recover.

The National Meningitis Trust said yesterday that it had received hundreds of calls from worried parents after the outbreak in Rottingdean. It warned parents to watch for symptoms including headache, fever, neck stiffness and a red-purple rash. Bacteria l meningitis kills in about 10 per cent of cases.

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