A WOMAN whose nephew died from meningitis is urging parents to know the warning signs of the disease.
Catherine Aithal, who lives in Newnham Hill, a hamlet near Stoke Row, is supporting Meningitis Awareness Week and has been handing out information about the disease and vaccines in Henley.
She became an ambassador for the Meningitis Research Foundation after three-year-old Oscar Gale died from the disease in 2001.
She was staying with her sister Emma, Oscar’s mother, in Dorset when he came to her in the night complaining of feeling unwell.
The following morning he quickly became very ill and was rushed to Southampton General Hospital where he died that night.
Mrs Aithal, 40, who lives with husband Anand, 48, an investor, and children Coco, five, and Albert, eight months, says parents should learn the symptoms of the disease.
She said: “When we got to hospital with Oscar and they told us it was meningitis we had no idea what that meant.
“As a mum, I know it’s really important for parents to look out for the signs, know what the symptoms are and get help because it’s so quick to take over a child’s body.
“For me it’s so important to try to stop it happening to other people. The doctors sent Oscar home but we knew he was ill and we shouldn’t have let it happen.
“We should have gone with our instincts, which is what I tell other mums.
“Oscar left a big hole in the family and we’ve since done a lot of fund-raising for the Meningitis Research Foundation, which we hope will help protect others from this devastating disease.”
Mrs Aithal, who is currently on maternity leave from her job at a London advertising agency, says it is better to have a child looked at by a doctor or paramedic if you are unsure. She said: “We had an incident last week with Albert when he had a high temperature and was arching his neck, which is an early sign of meningitis.
“We called 111 and the paramedics were brilliant — they gave him medicine, checked all the signs and stayed with us.
“You shouldn’t be scared to call them out. They said they would rather be here checking he was all right than waiting for the next call.”
On Monday, Mrs Aithal took an assembly for children at Rupert House School in Henley, where Coco is a pupil.
She said: “Coco has just started in year one and with all the stuff in the news about meningitis vaccines I thought it might be a good time to go in and talk to the school and parents about the disease.” She talked about 11-year-old Sophia Crockatt, who lost her left leg to meningitis aged two but now takes part in runs and triathlons for the foundation.
Mrs Aithal said: “Sophia’s story is really inspiring. She now runs with a blade and has done the Great North Run and triathlons as well as riding bikes and horses.
“She has raised £45,000 for the Meningitis Research Foundation and won the Heart of the North Young Person award last year. I also told them about some of the symptoms and how they need to look after each other.
“The kids were really responsive, asking and answering lots of questions. It made it all inspiring rather than scary.”
Pupils paid £1 to wear purple or dark red clothes on the day, with the money going to the foundation. Mrs Aithal also gave a talk to about 30 parents, recalling what happened to Oscar.
She said: “It was more hard-hitting as I talked about Oscar and how quickly it happened.
“A lot of the parents were very confused about the vaccine and were asking lots of questions about whether they should get their child vaccinated and if it protects from all strands.
“The meningitis B vaccine is now available in Henley. You have to pay for it but it’s there.
“I’m out and about in Henley this week and if I see any parents or anyone with a pushchair I’ll be handing out symptoms cards. It’s something really useful to have in your back pocket.”
For more information, visit www.meningitis.org