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Little Oscar McLaughlin's thriving thanks to five months in an isolation bubble

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 25/11/2015

Oscar McLaughlin as a severely ill baby in hospital
Oscar McLaughlin as a severely ill baby in hospital
Oscar McLaughlin with his family
Oscar McLaughlin today

A boy whose immune system was so weak that a kiss from his mother could have killed him is now for school - thanks to a room-sized bubble.

Oscar McLaughlin, from Portstewart, was just seven months old when he contracted pneumonia.

When he did not respond to antibiotics, he underwent multiple tests and was eventually diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening condition - Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID).

The condition damages the immune system to the extent that it offers little or no protection, making sufferers prone to repeated, life-threatening infections.

Oscar's mum, Olivia, said the diagnosis left the family with a stark choice - it was, she said, "transplant or death".

She added that without treatment in a special bubble unit - an eight foot square sterilised room that protects against bugs and bacteria - in England, her son would not have survived.

"It was my first day back at work when he became poorly," Olivia said. "We took him to our local hospital and he was diagnosed with pneumonia.

"He didn't respond to treatment, and two days later he was transferred to an intensive care unit in Belfast. That's when it hit me something was really wrong.

"While we were in Belfast, Oscar was diagnosed with SCID. I was in complete shock. One moment we had a perfectly healthy baby, the next he was suffering from a life-threatening condition. It was horrifying - we had no idea what was ahead of us."

After spending a week, including his first Christmas, in intensive care, Oscar was transferred by air ambulance to the bubble unit in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he was kept in isolation for more than five months.

During that time, he underwent a bone marrow transplant, a painful procedure that was vital to save his life. His mum and dad, Pearse, were by his side constantly. "There was no alternative for Oscar - it was transplant or death," Olivia said. "There is no way he would have survived without it. It was horrendous, but now, nearly four years on, he is on the road to recovery and living a normal life.

"He has just started school and is enjoying it. He gets tired, but he never complains - he likes to say he has Superman blood. None of this would have been possible without the bubble unit. The staff are amazing, I'm so grateful. They're saving lives every day."

The family is now urging others to support the Bubble Foundation, a charity that supports the vital work of the unit, providing everything from toys for patients to funding for ongoing research into the causes of and treatments for immune system conditions. Without sufficient funding, the charity is under threat of closure.

Olivia said: "We would encourage everyone to donate. This is a life-saving unit where all children who have this problem will be referred to. The things they do are absolutely priceless."

Survival rates for the children treated in the bubble unit have risen from 50% to 90%.

Professor Andrew Cant, a world-leading paediatric consultant at the hospital, said if it was not for the funding obtained through the Bubble Foundation, success stories like Oscar's would be unheard of.

"Children with immune deficiencies are often a rather forgotten group, even though around one in every 500 babies is born with some form of the condition," consultant Cant added. "It is my vision that all children with these life-limiting conditions be diagnosed as small babies.

"We'll have treatment that is 100% successful, 100% of the time, less toxic and less demanding than it is today.

"We've come a long way, but there's still a huge amount to do, and we need everyone to get behind the Bubble Foundation and help us raise crucial funds."

The Bubble Foundation has also launched its largest ever fundraising appeal - Bubbles for The Bubble. All money raised will be put back into the foundation, which continues to pioneer research into severe primary immunodeficiencies and supports dedicated patient treatment, care and integrated family support.

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