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tackle meningitis

'He ended up in an induced coma': Matt Dawson on his son's meningitis battle

Dawson and Rory Best are teaming up to raise awareness about the condition. / YouTube

IT’S EVERY PARENT’S worst nightmare, watching your child go from healthy to seriously unwell in a matter of minutes.

Any parent whose child has contracted meningitis knows how quickly they can deteriorate and need urgent medical help.

Meningitis is the swelling of the lining around the brain and spinal cord, while septicaemia is blood poisoning caused by the same germs. They can occur together or separately.

The conditions can kill within hours, making it vital to be aware of the symptoms and act accordingly.

In February 2016, Matt Dawson’s son Sami (then two years old) contracted W135, a rare strain of meningitis.

Sami Dawson Sami Matt Dawson Matt Dawson

He ended up in Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, where he was placed in an induced coma.

Dawson recalls: “From a morning where we thought he was a little bit poorly and probably had a fever it progressed very, very quickly into ‘We need to get him down to A&E’.

“By the end of the day he was in an induced coma and rushed off to Great Ormond Street and there for two weeks, it was all a little bit of a blur.

It puts into perspective not only how important your family are, but what you can do to assist in those types of times because I wouldn’t say for a minute that my knowledge of meningitis was particularly high at that time.

Dawson, a former England rugby union captain, has been raising awareness about meningitis since Sami’s battle with the illness.

Today he was in Dublin with Ireland captain Rory Best to promote Tackle Meningitis, a campaign aimed at increasing people’s knowledge about the condition, its symptoms and strains.

best1 Dawson and Best Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

A new survey conducted by GSK to mark World Meningitis Day, which is happening today, found that 44% of Irish parents think a distinctive rash is the first symptom of meningitis, despite the fact it often appears after other symptoms or not at all.

This was the case for Sami, Dawson tells “Half of parents would think that you get that red rash on the body, put the glass on it, if it doesn’t disappear, ‘Oh, it could be meningitis’ – well, we didn’t even get to that stage, myself and my wife.

“It was more that we knew, our gut instinct was that there was something wrong…

The symptoms could be as obvious as feverish, a little bit grumpy, would be sort of cowering away from bright lights, cold hands and feet even though the body would be really hot and feverish, nausea, diarrhoea, all of a sudden when you add some of those together that’s before you even get to the rash.

“He was in ICU for just over a week and then was in a kidney rehabilitation unit – he went through several dialysis treatments and a blood transfusion, there was a lot of strain on his kidneys and his main organs.”

Dawson recalled how difficult it was to watch Sami in the induced coma, telling us: “There was no reaction, he was there just sort of motionless.

“It’s the worst thing for a parent when you’re stroking their forehead and telling them stories and they’ve just got their eyes closed, in a world of their own, and you don’t know from one minute to the next if you’re going to see them again.

“It’s an incredibly difficult thing to take on board and to compute.”

Various strains 

There are several strains of meningococcal bacteria with the main groups being A, B, C, W, X and Y.

Vaccines are available to protect against some of the strains, however, no single vaccine protects against all of them. Sami had received the meningitis C vaccine.

Sami Dawson 2 Sami Matt Dawson Matt Dawson

“Nowadays actually in Ireland you would get B and C [vaccination publicly] which is great news but there are other strains … We had the men C vaccine, we thought ‘Oh, it can’t be meningitis because he’s had the jab’.

“Again there are plenty of parents out there who wouldn’t necessarily know that there are lots of other strains even though you’ve been vaccinated,” Dawson warns.

‘Trust your gut’

Best, also a father-of-two, said he was happy to team up with Dawson to raise awareness, noting he was one of the parents who thought a rash was the first thing to look for in terms of identifying meningitis.

“The most important thing in the world to you are your kids, you don’t really realise it until you become a parent.

“The thing that I wasn’t aware of is that there are so many strains, you know, you just assume ‘They’re vaccinated for meningitis, they’ll be fine potentially’, but that’s not the case.
Then to realise that minutes, 10, 20 minutes at that stage can make a massive difference, and to know what those early signs are and to be able to go, even to check the website, phone your GP, get to A&E and trust your gut on it a bit because at that stage it can be critical to get help as soon as possible.

“It’s only whenever something happens or you hear of something happening to somebody else, that’s when it really hits home, how devastating this disease can be, but also how precious your kids are.”

download Sami and his older brother Alex Matt Dawson Matt Dawson

Sami, now three, is thankfully back to full health.

Dawson tells us: “He’s great, he’s a normal three-year-old lad playing with his older brother, scrapping, cuddling, kissing, poking each other’s eyes out, normal sibling rivalry, very fit and healthy, very sharp.”


Meningitis is usually bacterial or viral, and occasionally is due to fungal infections, although almost any microbe can cause it.

Viral meningitis is almost never life-threatening and most people quickly make a full recovery. Bacterial meningitis is more serious and can be caused by a range of different bacteria.

Symptoms can include fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell. Limb pain, pale skin and cold hands and feet often appear earlier than the rash, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights and confusion.

Meningitis Research Foundation / YouTube

Most cases in Ireland and the UK are caused by meningococcal bacteria.

There are about 200 cases of meningitis in Ireland every year. The Meningitis Research Foundation notes that about one in 10 people who contract it die as a result.

One in 10 survivors will end up with a disability such as brain damage or hearing loss or need an amputation, while three in 10 survivors will have side effects such as psychological disorders and a reduced IQ.

If you suspect someone may have meningitis or septicaemia, seek medical help immediately.

For more information and support visit the Meningitis Research Foundation and ACT for Meningitis.

Read: ‘From 10am in the doctor’s surgery to noon in the hospital, my baby was gone’

Read: Matt Dawson shares images of two-year-old son battling meningitis to raise awareness

Read: ‘It robs you of your very being’: Life with the invisible illness

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