Stroke among top 10 causes of deaths in children

Aimee and Matt Dean with daughter Mackenzie, 5, who suffered a stroke at the age of two. Photo: Jason South
Aimee and Matt Dean with daughter Mackenzie, 5, who suffered a stroke at the age of two. Photo: Jason South

Mackenzie Dean had to learn to walk twice, all before her third birthday.

The toddler was scooting around the house one morning when she suddenly collapsed, her left side limp and her face sagging.

As her parents laid her on the bed, the little girl lifted up her weak left arm with the other stronger one, and declared that she needed a doctor.

Her father, Matt Dean, suspected his daughter had experienced a stroke.

"Disbelief was an emotion we went through obviously, because she was two and a half," Mr Dean said.

"We had no idea it could happen to kids.

"It was utter fear for me. My grandma had only recently passed away from a stroke, so I knew how serious it was."

Mackenzie, nevertheless, is one of the lucky ones.

The Deans were met by an emergency team of doctors at the hospital and following an MRI they were able to confirm that Mackenzie had indeed suffered a stroke, and she received emergency treatment.

But many parents, and even doctors and health care professionals, overlook stroke, because they are not aware it can happen to children.

In fact, it is among the top 10 causes of death in children. It's estimated that up to 10 per cent of child stroke victims will die, and others will face significant physical and neurological difficulties.

Stroke is estimated to strike between 200 and 400 Australian babies and children each year, sometimes causing death and permanent disability, but it has sometimes taken doctors days to diagnose.

In order to tackle this problem, the nation's first-ever clinical guidelines for childhood stroke have been developed by doctors from Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital and Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

It says symptoms to be alert for include weakness in certain areas of the body, trouble speaking or slurred words, uncoordinated limbs and drowsiness.

"Broadly speaking the symptoms of stroke are the same as adults, except seizures are also often a common symptom of stroke in children," said RCH stroke program director Associate Professor Mark Mackay.

Many children affected by strokes have been in good health then, suffer a stroke after getting an infection such as chicken pox, or enduring head or neck trauma.

Professor Mackay said the only clear risk factor was having a heart problem, such as a hole in the heart.

After children are diagnosed with a stroke via an MRI, some children are given clot busting treatment followed by blood thinning medication, before likely undergoing intensive rehabilitation.

Mackenzie Dean had to learn to stand, walk and talk all over again after her stroke.

Now aged five, she has just finished her first year of prep at Sunbury Primary School in Melbourne. Her parents say while she has recovered, the stroke has slowed her down just a little - she took longer to learn to climb than her peers and she still has training wheels on her bike.

"It is something that hasn't left our minds," Mr Dean said.

"When she gets fatigued and tired you can notice a tiny droop on her mouth - but other people wouldn't recognise it".

Professor Mackay said child stroke victims could get behind meeting their developmental milestones.

"Worst case scenarios would include that a child would be paralysed down one side of their body," he said.

"Some have epilepsy. It can have a pervasive effect."

The Ian Potter Foundation provided $130,000 to help create the clinical guidelines.