IT blunder in the NHS means millions may have missed a meningitis jab

More than a MILLION people may have missed out on a life-saving meningitis vaccine on the NHS due to an IT blunder

  • Computer system was meant to flag when a patient had not been immunised 
  • System was automatically turned ‘off’ to avoid ‘alert fatigue’
  • Many GP surgeries were unaware they had to manually turn the alerts ‘on’ 

More than a million people may have missed out on a life-saving meningitis vaccine due to an NHS IT blunder.

Following the emergence of a particularly deadly strain of meningitis in 2015, the Department of Health signed off a computer system that flagged to GPs when an at-risk patient had not been immunised. 

However, it has come to light the system was automatically in an ‘off’ setting to avoid ‘alert fatigue’, with many GP surgeries being unaware they had to manually turn it ‘on’.

The charity Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) claims this led to ‘deaths in young people who should have been offered the vaccine’.

Tim Mason (pictured) died at just 21 years old in March last year from meningitis and septicaemia. His parents blame a blundered IT system that failed to alert GPs when patients were eligible for a vaccine against a particularly deadly meningitis strain

Vinny Smith, chief executive of MRF, said: ‘It’s a tragedy for a young person to die from an illness they should have been protected against through vaccination.

‘It seems absurd to us an emergency vaccination programme to protect young people against a lethal disease had systems in place that were switched off.

‘Practices needed to activate the MenACWY alert protocol in order to use it but this would rely on them knowing how to do so. 

‘Practices told us they did not know how to activate the alert and we know deaths from MenW disease have occurred in young people who should have been offered the vaccine.’ 

MenACWY was introduced in August 2015 for teenagers and young people to stop a new strain of meningitis taking hold.


A 21-year-old man died after his GP failed to alert him he was eligible for a free meningitis vaccine due to a computer blunder. 

Tim Mason began to fell unwell on March 15 last year but pushed on regardless.

The following day, Mr Mason, of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, woke in the early hours violently vomiting, prompting his mother Fiona Mason to rush him to hospital.

Despite barely being able to walk, doctors dismissed his symptoms as gastroenteritis and sent him home, only for him to ‘feel like he was dying’ hours later.

After going back to hospital, medics realised he was battling meningitis and septicaemia, which occurs when large amounts of bacteria enter the bloodstream. 

Despite doctors’ best efforts to save him, Mr Mason died 21 hours and 15 minutes after his symptoms began.

Tim Mason (pictured) died of meningitis and septicaemia 21 hours and 15 minutes after his symptoms began. Doctors initially dismissed his vomiting as gastroenteritis

Mr Mason was at college training to be an electrical engineer when he started to feel poorly.  

‘He felt sufficiently unwell to go to the doctor, who advised him to take a few more days off and rest,’ Mrs Mason said.

Mr Mason was sent home only to wake the next morning violently throwing up. 

‘My instinct told me something was seriously wrong so we took him to hospital,’ his mother said.

‘By the time we got to Tunbridge Wells Hospital he had a high temperature and could barely walk. After a long wait he was misdiagnosed with gastroenteritis and sent home at about 8:45am.’

By 2.30pm, Mr Mason had taken a turn for the worse and his mother rushed him back to hospital. 

‘This time doctors began treatment but it was too late to save his life,’ she said. 

‘He died that evening. It was 21 hours and 15 minutes from visible first symptoms to death.’

Mrs Mason and her husband Gavin believe the IT blunder led to their son’s death. ‘The system failed Tim in more than one way,’ she said. 

‘He should have received a letter from the GP calling him in for his vaccine, which would have prevented him getting MenW in the first place, but no letter was ever received. 

‘Tim had attended several GP appointments during the years after the vaccine was introduced in the UK. 

‘Had the EMIS alert been activated, he would have been flagged to staff at those appointments as a patient eligible for the vaccine. This didn’t happen.’

The couple also believe their son’s symptoms should have alerted hospital staff to the possibility of meningitis at his first visit.  

‘All we can do now is try to raise awareness of these issues and make sure improvements are made to stop this happening to other families,’ Mrs Mason said.

Students who left school at 17 or 18 in 2015, 2016 or 2017 were entitled to the free jab from their GP, however, uptake in this age group has always been worryingly low.   

The software developer EMIS, which is used by most GP practices across the UK, was therefore installed with an alert that flagged to doctors when they were treating a patient who was eligible for MenACWY. 

A letter from Seema Kennedy MP to MRF read: ‘The protocol was not activated by default, but instructions were sent out for local activation.’

MRF campaigned for the system to be turned ‘on’ as standard. Ms Kennedy’s note added: ‘It has been agreed this alert will be enabled for all EMIS users in England.’

NHS Digital also confirmed the EMIS alert has automatically been ‘on’ in GP Practices in England as of April.  

‘It’s positive news from [the] Government that the alert has now been activated across England and patients attending GP appointments opportunistically will now be made aware if they are eligible for the vaccine,’ Mr Smith said.

‘It is vital that systems are improved so that this never happens again.’ 

The MenACWY vaccine is routinely offered to children who are around 13 years old in England and Wales. 

Anyone born between September 1 1996 and August 31 1999 is eligible for the vaccine from their GP practice up until their 25th birthday; as are those under 25 who are going to university for the first time.  


Meningitis is inflammation of the membranes that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord.

Anyone can be affected but at-risk people include those aged under five, 15-to-24 and over 45.

People exposed to passive smoking or with suppressed immune systems, such as patients undergoing chemotherapy, are also more at risk.

The most common forms of meningitis are bacterial and viral.

Symptoms for both include:

  • Pale, blotchy skin with a rash that does not fade when compressed with a glass
  • Stiff neck
  • Dislike of bright lights  
  • Fever, and cold hands and feet
  • Vomiting
  • Drowsiness 
  • Severe headache 

Headache is one of the main symptoms

Bacterial meningitis 

Bacterial meningitis requires urgent treatment at hospital with antibiotics.  

Some 10 per cent of bacterial cases are fatal.

Of those who survive, one in three suffer complications, including brain damage and hearing loss. 

Limb amputation is a potential side effect if septicaemia (blood poisoning) occurs.

Vaccines are available against certain strains of bacteria that cause meningitis, such as tuberculosis.

Viral meningitis 

Viral is rarely life-threatening but can cause long-lasting effects, such as headaches, fatigue and memory problems. 

Thousands of people suffer from viral meningitis every year in the UK. 

Treatment focuses on hydration, painkillers and rest.

Although ineffective, antibiotics may be given when patients arrive at hospital just in case they are suffering from the bacterial form of the disease. 

Source: Meningitis Now 

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