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“It’s Just a Bug”. The Story of One Unvaccinated Boy’s Struggle with Meningitis

© UNICEF Ukraine/2008/ Lambroschini

Story by Sophie Lambroschini

Artur Hudz, a handsome eight year-old with lively brown eyes, excitedly flips through the family photo album. He points his finger to favourite inmates: two cats curled up on his bed, a parakeet perched on his head, two pet iguanas resting on his arm. “We waa-lk theee ii-guuu..aa-nas on a leas-h”, Artur says, brows furrowed, struggling to pronounce the words clearly.

“Artur couldn’t hear anything for two years. He almost forgot how to speak,” his mother Svetlana explains. When Artur was only five, meningitis, an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, destroyed Artur’s hearing and affected his overall health. After three years of intensive rehab, Artur is finally ready to start school next September.

A state of the art hearing implant is helping the boy to slowly get some sound back into his life. “Even a year after getting this implant, he still doesn’t recognize voices - we all sound metallic to him” Svetlana says, with a twinge of sadness. But pride and relief are certainly the dominant feelings in this family: after all their son survived.

 “Deafness is typical for bacterial meningitis, affecting 10-15% of such patients,” explains Dr. Fedir Lapiy, a practicing immunologist who treated Artur and many children like him.  Up to half of meningitis victims are left with some degree of disability. “Some children suffer only mild after-affects, like chronic headaches and extreme sensitivity to the weather, others contract cerebral palsy, or hydrocephalus,” he says.

Meningitis can be caused by certain medications, illnesses, by a virus and by several types of bacteria. Bacterial meningitis - the type Artur caught - can be life threatening, killing one in four victims. The bacteria are easily transmitted from person to person through droplets of respiratory or throat secretions – through kissing but also sharing cups and cutlery - making toddlers in kindergartens and schoolchildren particularly vulnerable.

Svetlana shakes her head in disbelief as she recalls the day when her son fell gravely ill: it happened so innocuously. “When I picked Arturchik up from kindergarten that evening he was tired and not well.” she remembers. By evening her son was running a high fever. “Just a bug” concluded the doctor, meaning to reassure her, but by dawn Artur’s condition had deteriorated. Whisked into intensive care in the Kyiv Infectious Diseases Hospital for Children, Artur then sank into a coma. For two weeks, Svetlana and Oleg weren’t even allowed to see him. When their son finally woke up after nine days, the worse seemed to be over. When in her first phone conversation with Artur since his hospitalization, all he repeated over and over was “Mama, is that you? Mama is that you? “He couldn’t hear me,” says Svetlana. 

© UNICEF Ukraine/2008/ Lambroschini

Artur was completely deaf and temporarily disabled. His arms and legs didn’t obey him anymore, he couldn’t sit up. “He was covered in sores, his mouth completely blistered, his bones sticking out – like someone out of a concentration camp,” Svetlana recalls. Since then “making Artur better” became a full-time concern: going to rehab, doing exercises, writing letters to get medical help….  “Even registering Artur in an ordinary school is a struggle – papers, letters, authorizations are needed,” she continues.

Luckily vaccines exists against some of the most common – and dangerous – bacteria that cause meningitis, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)  and Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) bacteria (also causing  pneumonia).  So why wasn’t Artur vaccinated? Svetlana shakes her head sadly: “We didn’t know that a vaccine against meningitis even existed, otherwise…” she trails off.

According to Dr. Lapiy, the anti-meningitis vaccinations that are part of routine immunization throughout Europe still meet resistance in Ukraine. “The vaccine against pneumococcus has still not been certified in Ukraine for under two-year olds,” he says. As for immunization against Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), it was introduced in Ukraine in 2006 and forms part of the routine immunization programme. “Unfortunately about half of the parents refuse to give it to their children”, says Dr. Lapiy with a sigh.

Svetlana understands the underlying fear that parents often have concerning immunization. But after her son’s ordeal, she says, her choice is made:  “Artur has now received all standard vaccinations – even against the flu.”



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