MENTION the word meningitis and you'll strike fear into the heart of any parent.

The disease, which attacks the brain and spinal cord, affects thousands of people every year.

Because there are several different types of the illness which can take hold within hours, it is notoriously hard to diagnose.

Although it mainly affects babies and young children, adults can also be at risk from the disease, as Beryl Starling knows only too well.

Last November, her daughter Zoe, 21, suffered the most dangerous strain of the disease, Group B.

Now the dedicated mum and grandmother, of nine-month-old Ben Smith - son of her son Rob and his wife Cathy - devotes a good chunk of her time to raising awareness about meningitis.

Beryl is working with the Meningitis Research Foundation on their new B Aware campaign.

She believes it is essential for people of all ages to recognise the symptoms of meningitis, because often it could be a matter of life or death.

In Zoe's case, she had been feeling unwell for a couple of days and complained about feeling hot and cold.

Her hips and legs had also been aching, but when she developed a rash, she realised it might be something more serious.

Beryl said: "Zoe called NHS Direct who told her to go to the doctors and after three of them looked at her, they phoned for an ambulance.

"I remember the day it happened exactly - I was shopping in Asda when another of my relatives came to find me and said Zoe wasn't well."

Beryl, 57, went straight to hospital and managed to arrive before her daughter. Although she was concerned, as any mother would be, she wasn't frantic as Zoe had developed rashes before.

"I didn't have a sense of dread, because when she was six weeks old, Zoe got a rash and was tested for meningitis, but it turned out to be a virus," Beryl explained.

"You always think things like that happen to other people, not you.

"I really believe if the rash hadn't appeared, Zoe might not be here now."

Zoe walked into A&E "like there was nothing wrong", but things soon went downhill.

At 6pm she was admitted to hospital and within four hours, was semi-conscious with a temperature of 40C.

"At 1am, she had a CT scan and at 3am, she had a lumbar puncture - everything just happened so fast," Beryl said.

"It was all a bit surreal, really. I was sitting by Zoe's bedside, but it felt like I was watching someone else.

"She kept saying she couldn't stand the pain in her head, couldn't keep anything down and was in and out of consciousness all the time.

"She was in hospital for eight days and even when she was released, the medical staff had to visit twice a day to put her on a drip.

"Luckily for her, she doesn't remember half of it."

Zoe's form of meningitis can be fatal and is often linked to septicaemia, or blood poisoning.

Even though she has now made a full recovery and is back at work in London, she still finds it difficult to talk about what happened.

"I don't think she's ready to relive it just yet - it's still quite raw," Beryl explained.

"It came as quite a shock to her system to realise how ill she actually was, but I'm just glad she's all right now.

"People need to realise meningitis can strike suddenly. You could be walking around in the morning then a few hours later, be critically ill.

"There are so many cases that get misdiagnosed so if you've got any doubts, any at all, I would urge people to go straight to A&E.

"If you think a child or relative of any age is suffering from meningitis, act quickly, otherwise it may be too late."

For more information about meningitis, call the Meningitis Research Foundation's free 24-hour helpline on 08088 003344.