Meningitis jab U-turn cheers campaigners

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A VACCINE against a deadly strain of meningitis is set to be introduced for young babies on the NHS after the Government has faced mounting pressure from charities and senior doctors,

The Department of Health’s independent advisory body, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), has agreed to adopt the Bexsero vaccine for meningitis B after initially rejecting it last year.

The announcement yesterday, which effectively marks a U-turn, said the vaccine should be introduced on the NHS if costs can be agreed with the manufacturer, Novartis.

The move was welcomed by charities and campaigners, who said it would save “thousands of lives”.

Steve Dayman, the founder of the charity Meningitis Now, whose baby son Spencer died from meningitis B in 1982, said: “This is the most monumental announcement in the fight against the disease in the 31 years I have campaigned to eradicate meningitis. It is the decision we’ve pushed for, to have the meningitis B vaccine given free to all infants. There is no doubt that it will save thousands of lives and spare survivors and their families the pain of living with life-changing after-effects.”

The JCVI said last July the vaccine was not a cost-effective use of NHS money “at any price” and could not be recommended, while also calling for further evidence. In October, following a campaign by scientists, charities and leading doctors who wrote to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the JCVI issued a further statement confirming it was considering new evidence and a range of views. Under the plans, babies will be vaccinated from the age of two months, with a one-off catch-up programme for those aged three and four months.

The Department of Health’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor John Watson confirmed that work is under way with Novartis to introduce a vaccine “as quickly as possible”.

The Bexsero vaccine, approved by the European Medicines Agency more than a year ago, is estimated to cover about 88 per cent of meningitis B disease. Until now, vaccines have only protected against some other bacterial types of meningitis.

About 1,870 people contract meningitis B each year in the UK. Meningitis B is a highly aggressive strain which infects the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It is a medical emergency and, if left untreated, can cause severe brain damage, septicaemia and death.

One in three survivors are left with debilitating after-effects such as loss of limbs or brain damage. Meningitis B is most common in children under five and, in particular, babies under the age of one.