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Deadly disease strikes teen

Mother’s warning after meningococcal meningitis mistaken for the flu


By Emily Norman

[email protected]

It was thought to be a simple case of the flu – but a day later, a Masterton teenager was admitted to hospital in a critical condition.

Less than 22 hours after the onset of a headache, the 16-year-old was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis.

It was the only case in Wairarapa last year, and one of only two since 2012.

Now his mother is hoping to bring more awareness around the rare disease and its symptoms.

Shae, a Wairarapa College student, had just finished exams last November when he began to suffer headaches and the shakes.

“It sounded like he was getting the flu,” his mother Sherry James said.

The headaches began on a Saturday night and on the Sunday morning Shae woke up feeling “paralysed” with heavy feeling legs.

But these symptoms subsided.

“That’s when the alarm bells were ringing,” Ms James said.

Ms James, who is a nurse, suspected it may have been meningitis, a potentially fatal bacterial infection that causes an infection of the membranes that cover the brain, and blood poisoning.

She asked her son to put his chin to his chest to check for the disease, “which he did easily with no neck pain or neck stiffness”.

“A telling sign of meningococcal meningitis includes sometimes not being able to do this because of neck stiffness,” she said.

Still thinking it may be the flu, Ms James left her Masterton home at 3pm that day to drop her other son off in Petone.

She said she usually would have stayed the night there but didn’t because Shae was unwell.

Ms James arrived back home at 8.40pm, finding Shae in a foetal position on the couch “in complete septic shock”.

“His girlfriend said, Shae’s acting really weird, he’s doing these weird body movements and he’s been vomiting,” Ms James said.

“I sat him up and his eyes were going in different directions.

“He was non-responsive and couldn’t talk, but he was conscious.”

Two ambulances were called to their home and Shae was taken to Wairarapa Hospital where he was put into an induced coma.

An MRI and a spinal tap confirmed he had meningitis.

“It was meningococcal meningitis,” Ms James said.

“You can lose limbs, go blind or deaf.”

Shae didn’t “come to” until 8pm the following night.

Ms James said it was “a frightening week”, especially after Shae developed the complication of brain swelling, one day after being discharged.

He was readmitted to hospital and transferred to Wellington for monitoring by a neurosurgeon.

“On the Monday morning, Shae’s headache had finally gone and he had no vomiting so we were discharged home.

“Thankfully, he has had a full recovery with no after effects, other than losing 6kgs and feeling quite fatigued.”

As a nurse and mother, Ms James wants people to know how subtle the symptoms of the disease can be.

“Shae didn’t have a rash, there was no sensitivity to light, and no neck stiffness.

“I think if someone goes to bed with a non-resolving headache, it would be beneficial to check them during the night, to physically wake them to make sure that they were alright and not left on their own.”


Quick facts


– Meningococcal disease may develop slowly over one or two days, or may develop quickly over just a few hours.

– Meningococcal disease can affect anyone but is most common in babies, children under 5 years, and teenagers.

– Bacterial meningitis may result in brain damage, limb loss, hearing loss, or a learning disability in 10-20 per cent of survivors.

– Each year between 2007 and 2015, there were between 45 and 132 cases of, and between 3 and 13 deaths nationally from meningococcal disease. Last year there was an increase in cases compared with a previous downward trend.

– There was one case in Wairarapa in 2016, one in 2015, but none from 2012-2014.

– Covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, and washing and drying your hands can help to reduce the chance of spreading the bacteria.

– The disease is more common in winter and spring.

– Immunisation to protect against strains C (2nd most common in NZ), A, Y and W, is recommended for teens and young adults living in shared accommodation like boarding schools and university hostels.

– Keep a close eye on sick people including overnight, and if you are worried ring Healthline on 0800 611 116, your after-hours clinic, or doctor immediately

– Further information can be found at www.immune.org.nz/diseases/meningococcal-disease





  • A high fever
  • Headache
  • Sleepiness
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Confusion
  • Rash
  • Stiff neck
  • Dislike of bright lights
  • Vomiting
  • Crying
  • Refusal to feed (in babies)


  1. We live in Masterton. My daughter came from Masterton to Whakatane where we were attending a funeral. She contracted viral meningitis and we are still bewildered as to how she got it! She was hospitalised for 2 nights, they gave her the spinal tap within 2 hours of being admitted. Her headache turned dangerous in 6 hours. We were lucky. Whakatane Hospital triage act fast! I’m so grateful for the care they delivered not only to my daughter but to us, her family who were not from there. They fed us and gave shelter while we waited for her to heal.

Comments are closed.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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