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Hopes of fall in meningitis deaths with new vaccine

By Joanne Sweeney

The number of cases of the potentially fatal Meningitis B infection is set to plunge dramatically after Northern Ireland becomes one of the first countries in the world to introduce a highly effective vaccine.

Stormont Health Minister Jim Wells confirmed that Northern Ireland is to be included in a UK-wide programme to protect babies against the devastating illness when it is introduced later this year.

With the vaccine effective in 88% of cases, the minister said many children's lives will be saved by the new jab from the end of this year on.

Since 2010 there has been around 25 to 35 cases of MenB each year in Northern Ireland, a number which is set to drop significantly.

The infection is fatal in around 10% of cases and largely affects children under one year old. Around 40% of those who survive are left with serious problems, including needing to have a limb amputated.

Mr Wells confirmed the addition of the MenB vaccine to the child immunisation programme yesterday and said it would be prioritised for children aged under one as soon as sufficient stock was made available.

The vaccine will be introduced throughout the UK following the Department of Health agreeing a price with pharma company GlaxoSmithKine which developed it.

Last night the DUP minister told the Belfast Telegraph: "I'm just so pleased to be the position to give hope to so many parents.

"There are very few decisions that a politician can make where he knows it will save lives and I'm absolutely certain this will save lives. It was one of the most easy decisions I've ever taken in my life but also the most important as we know that in a year's time there will be perfectly healthy children running around Northern Ireland that would not be here had we not introduced this vaccine."

Mr Wells confirmed that giving the vaccine to an estimated 25,000 children would cost around £600,000 in the first year, increasing to £1.5m in the second year.

London Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced yesterday that the Government had finally reached a deal with GlaxoSmithKine over the cost of the Bexsero MenB vaccine.

The deal means that the UK will be the first place in the world with a nationwide MenB vaccination programme. Campaigners and parents had been calling for the vaccine to be introduced after a decision was taken to make it available to children over a year ago.

The DUP's Upper Bann MP David Simpson said of the price agreement: "This will ease the worries of parents. The standoff over price was totally unacceptable when children were at risk from this dreaded disease."

The vaccine will be soon part of the national childhood immunisation scheme, meaning babies will receive the first vaccine at two months old, four months and at 12 months.

Mr Wells told yesterday of how he has been haunted by the look of pain on the faces of a couple from Rathfriland, Co Down, when he attended the funeral of their little boy who died from MenB 10 years ago.

He said: "Their little boy had gone from having flu-like symptoms to having meningitis in about 17 hours. It was absolutely haunting."

Mr Wells said that due to the foresight of his officials, his department was in a good position to introduce the vaccine as soon as possible but that it would probably take until this autumn.

He said that meningitis types A and C had virtually been eradicated from Northern Ireland but that tackling MenB had been "the Holy Grail".

He said his department would re-examine what can be done for older age groups to receive the vaccine but that health officials agreed that children aged under one were most at risk.

However, he cautioned that there was still 12% of children who would not be protected but that the drug company was working hard to improve on that.

Factfile

What is Meningitis B?

  • Meningitis B is a bacterial infection that usually affects babies under one.
  • Symptoms include a high fever with cold hands and feet, confusion, vomiting and headaches. Full recovery is possible with antibiotic treatment if caught early.
  • However, it is fatal in around one in 10 cases and one in four survivors are left with long-term problems like amputation, deafness and epilepsy.
  • There are effective vaccines against other strains of meningitis - but until now not against Meningitis B.

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