Even after 10 years,I still get the same feeling of dread when the meningitis season is near its peak, and the anniversary approaches of my infant son's suffering at the hands of this horrible disease.
I know many parents, relatives and friends will soon be about to suffer the anguish that my family and I went through in 1998, when my bouncing nine-month-old boy Patrick was struck down by a vicious form of meningococcal scepticaemia, the blood poisoning that is so often a deadly side effect of meningitis. I know that, in a matter of hours, another family's child will be at death's door, kept alive only by advanced medical skills – if they are fortunate enough, as I was, to get the child to a hospital equipped to fight the disease.
I know they will face days of agony and sadness, praying their child will survive; weeks and months of worry about the awful destruction meningitis can inflict on a young, vulnerable body; and years, even a lifetime, coming to terms with the consequences of the experience.
I still have nightmares about visiting the ward where Patrick was recovering from another bout of surgery to remove the blackened, hardened stumps that had so recently been perfect baby limbs. I can still hear his cries of agony as he went through withdrawal from morphine treatment, which had shielded him from what must have been unbearable pain. These images will never leave me, and have changed me – and all my family– profoundly and permanently.
News that scientists may have found a vaccine for the B strain of the disease fills me with relief and gratitude. I am happy that fewer parents will have to go through what we went through, and profoundly grateful to the scientists who worked so hard to find an antidote to the virus. At St Mary's Hospital in London, where my son's life was saved by the most dedicated professionals I have ever met, they will be entitled to celebrate this fantastic medical advance. It is a victory for good over evil.
But there are still other strains, and other transmutations of the viruses and bacteria that attack such defenceless victims. Other parents and relatives will still suffer. They can take hope, however, from the real lesson I have learnt about the trauma of meningitis: that there is life after the disease, and it is a more valuable and cherished life for having been through the experience and come out the other side.
Patrick is a normal, healthy, curious, intelligent 11-year-old, doing very well academically at a good school in London. He performs daily heroics coming to terms with the results of his illness, but does not let his prosthetic leg or awkward digits prevent him leading a full, happy and active life. There is always hope, even in the darkest hours.