DAWN WALTON - Globe and Mail Update
January 20, 2009 at 7:43 PM EST CALGARY
A seven-year-old Alberta boy has died of meningitis, a devastating illness that affects about 400 Canadians annually but rarely kills children over the age of five as new vaccines have become a routine part of immunization programs.
Mark Willcock, who died in a Calgary hospital on Monday of the disease that causes membranes around the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed, may never have received preventive vaccines, his mother said.
"I thought he was in the lower risk group," a heartbroken Kim Willcock said from her home in Lethbridge. "They're so healthy and you never think it's going to happen to you or your kid."
Last Wednesday, the outgoing Grade 2 student told his mother he felt sick. She gave him Motrin for a mild fever and kept him home from school and watched him play video games.
"I actually thought he kind of fooled me and got away with staying at home," Ms. Willcock said.
By the next morning, Mark complained of a sore neck, headache and he had a fever - classic symptoms of the illness. A doctor, while unable to make a diagnosis, sent the boy to the hospital ordering intravenous antibiotics, which is a standard treatment for bacterial meningitis. The youngster was told to return the next day for another round of medication. Overnight, he had a seizure. An ambulance whisked him to the hospital in Lethbridge and tests were being done, but by then, doctors finally suspected meningitis.
On Friday, Mark was taken by air ambulance to Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary, but he was far too ill then to be saved.
"I knew he was sick. I've seen all my kids get sick, but even the doctor didn't catch it at first," said Ms. Willcock, who praised the care her son received.
Mark was youngest of three boys, a joker who excelled at math and was so generous that he would give away toys to friends who didn't have them.
Meningitis can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Ms. Willcock said doctors believe her son contracted the bacterial form, but they still don't know how.
The most common strain of the disease is Meningitis C, which is responsible for 50 per cent of cases and is also the strain targeted by vaccinations.
Dr. Vanessa Maclean, acting medical officer of health, said laboratory tests were unable to isolate the organism that caused the illness, but added that the risk to the public is "extremely low."
Meningococcal disease can be contagious if the bacteria spread through contact such as coughing or kissing.
About one in four people who get the illness die, and half that do are under the age of 5.
Mark's family asks that donations be made to Fleetwood-Bawden Elementary School in Lethbridge so a piece of playground equipment can be installed in his memory. In the spirit of his generosity, they also donated his organs, which went on to help four other children battle their own illnesses.
"It just seemed so clear. He'd really want this," Ms. Willcock said.