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Woman, 22, can’t recognise her family or even herself – all due to a cold sore

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Hannah Read has the UK’s worst case of face blindness (SWNS)
Hannah Read has the UK’s worst case of face blindness (SWNS)

A woman who stopped being able to recognise her family or herself after contracting a cold sore, has been told she is suffering “the UK’s worst case of face blindness”.

Hannah Read, 22, suffered encephalitis – an inflammation of the brain – that was triggered by the cold sore virus, when she was just eight years old.

Read had been holidaying in Gran Canaria with her family at the time and fell ill on the second day of the trip.

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“I went to the doctor but they thought I was just dehydrated, so gave me hydration tablets, but the next day I had a really high temperature and a bad headache,” Read says.

“I kept asking if I could go to bed, which was really out of character, until I became unconscious.”

She was rushed to hospital in a coma and put on life support – but when she recovered she failed to recognise the faces of her friends and family.

Hannah was just eight years old when she was diagnosed with encephalitis (SWNS)Hannah was just eight years old when she was diagnosed with encephalitis (SWNS)
Hannah was just eight years old when she was diagnosed with encephalitis (SWNS)

Read was diagnosed with encephalitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain, triggered by a viral infection. Her brain had begun to swell up after contracting the cold sore virus and her body couldn’t fight it off.

“I was kept alive by machine. No one knew whether I was going to survive or not,” Read continues. “I was two hours away from the hotel, so my heavily pregnant mum stayed with me and slept on the floor, and my dad and sister would drive to visit every day.

“My dad said he was kissing me goodbye every time he left because he didn’t know if I would still be there the next day.”

Read spent weeks in hospital re-learning how to walk and talk, but it was when she was discharged that her family noticed a change.

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“When I came home I had to relearn the alphabet and couldn’t dress or bathe myself, which is why it took a bit of time for them to notice I wasn’t recognising faces,” she adds.

“The part of my brain that processes faces never recovered. My two sisters, Elle and Mia, are really close in age and of similar height, so I couldn’t tell them apart.”

Nearly 14 years on, Read hoped she would get better, but still sees every face as just “two eyes, a nose and a mouth”.

In 2012 face blindness specialist Dr Sarah Bate, from Bournemouth University, told Read she had the most severe case in the UK.

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Now working as a nursery nurse, Read has to get the kids to wear name badges, and memorises her colleagues favourite clothes, as their faces all look the same.

When she plays sport with friends, the only way she knows who is on her team, and who to pass a ball to, is because they wear a different coloured bib.

Encephalitis can be triggered by any virus and Read hopes to raise awareness of this largely-unknown yet potentially fatal reaction to an infection.

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The NHS says symptoms of encephalitis include confusion or disorientation, seizures or fits, changes in personality and behaviour, difficulty speaking, weakness or loss of movement in some parts of the body as well as a loss of consciousness.

The Encephalitis Society has seen several reports of COVID-19 positive patients developing meningo-encephalitis, and say that early data suggests COVID-19 has neurological complications in around 30% of patients.

To find out more about encephalitis, visit nhs.uk/encephalitis

Additional reporting by SWNS.

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