A COUPLE who nearly lost their daughter to meningitis are alerting other parents, as campaigners warned deaths from the virus have hit a 50-year high.

Rachel Harman's parents were told eight years ago that their four-year-old daughter was unlikely to survive after she was struck down with the killer condition.

But Rachel, now 12, beat the odds to make a full recovery and her parents, Deborah and Michael, of Crestwood, Redcar, gave their backing yesterday to an awareness campaign.

The Meningitis Research Foundation says cases of meningitis and septicaemia, the blood poisoning form of the disease, were at a 50-year high in the UK last year.

There were more cases in babies and very young children than any other age group. Part of the problem is that young children cannot tell their parents how they are feeling.

Now the charity has launched Meningitis Baby Watch with the aim of saving lives over the winter months, when the disease is more prevalent.

Mr and Mrs Harman are backing the charity's call for parents to trust their instincts and get immediate medical help.

They remembered that Rachel woke one morning feeling fine, but after breakfast began to complain of a headache.

Mrs Harman became increasingly concerned and called a doctor, who said she had a virus.

But as Rachel began to deteriorate further and started hallucinating, Mrs Harman called another doctor, who said Rachel had meningitis.

Mrs Harman said: "I went numb. I knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about meningitis and I didn't know it was so serious."

Rachel was rushed to South Cleveland Hospital where the most serious form of the disease, meningicoccal septicaemia, was diagnosed. Doctors told her parents she may not live through the night.

But Rachel pulled through and was discharged from hospital ten days later.

Mrs Harman, who now has another daughter, Emily, five, said: "We were one of the lucky ones. She made a full recovery and she doesn't really remember anything about it or realises the extent of just how seriously ill she was."

Their feelings were echoed by Gavin Knaggs and Suzanne Beardwell, of Darlington, who said: "Our son, Harry, contracted meningitis and septicaemia when he was just seven weeks old and tragically died.

"It is vital that people are aware of the signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia, as quick diagnosis and treatment are essential."

The foundation operates a 24-hour helpline on 0800 8800 3344