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This Belfast GP says all children should get vital vaccine she's given her kids

The new drug which protects against Meningitis B has been ruled too expensive by the NHS, so Belfast GP, Dr Lisa Neligan is providing it privately. By Stephanie Bell

A local GP and mum-of-two who has witnessed first-hand the devastation of meningitis B has been instrumental in bringing to Northern Ireland the new vaccination which protects children against the deadly virus.

Among the first to receive it this week were Dr Lisa Neligan's own children, two-year-old Rebecca and four-year-old David.

The vaccine, which will prevent children from developing the potentially lethal virus, arrived here just a week ago and already eight other children have received it.

It could be many years before it is available on the National Health Service, as the government has deemed it too expensive.

Dr Neligan, who works part-time as a GP in Belvoir Health Clinic and at the private Kingsbridge Hospital and 3fivetwo Healthcare on the Lisburn Road, believes every child should receive the vaccination.

Initially, she ordered it to protect her own children but after outlining the benefits to her boss at 3fivetwo, the company has agreed to offer a clinic to the public for the first time.

It was while working as a doctor in paediatric A&E in her native Dublin that Dr Neligan (35), who now lives in Belfast with her husband David (35), a businessman from Northern Ireland, witnessed how meningitis B can kill within hours.

She says: "It is something which I am particularly scared about as a mum and as a doctor. I have seen just how frightening and totally devastating it can be.

"In a lot of the cases we dealt with in hospital, the children came in too late. I've seen young children and babies dying from it; it's absolutely heartbreaking. We also had a number of suspected cot deaths which were later shown to have been caused by meningitis B.

"It develops initially like any other virus and so it's difficult even for GPs to pick up. By the time the deadly rash appears, it is usually too late. Meningitis B can kill within just 12 hours.

"Those who do survive are often left with brain or limb damage or without their sight. It is horrific.

"I know it's rare, but having children myself, I know it is also every parent's worst nightmare. I do believe this vaccine will save many lives."

Around 1,870 people contract meningitis B every year in the UK and one-in-10 of them die, with children under five being most at risk. The virus kills more children in this age group than any other infectious disease.

About a quarter of all survivors are left with life-altering after-effects, such as brain damage, limb or hearing loss. Vaccines are the only way to prevent it and have almost eliminated some other kinds of meningitis.

Dr Neligan says: "While there have been effective vaccines against other common strains of bacterial meningitis, until now there has been no vaccine against this highly aggressive B strain.

"The new vaccine has been researched for over 20 years and clinical trials have been carried out on over 8,000 people and it was found to have similar levels of safety and tolerability as other routine childhood vaccines.

"We have literally just got the vaccine in this week and I have already vaccinated eight children and so far there have been no problems, and I plan to give it to my own children this week.

"It has been approved and received licensing from the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

"Unfortunately though, it is expensive and has not been added to the vaccination schedule as of yet, as it was deemed not to be cost-effective by the government at the present time. So it's not looking like it will be available free any time soon, it could be years."

The Meningitis Research Foundation has welcomed the vaccine and is currently lobbying the government to get it given free on the NHS to children. And last month, more than 100 medical scientists and clinician researchers wrote to the UK Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, urging him to re-evaluate the advice on the cost-benefits of the drug.

Despite meningitis B being rare, the threat was brought home very recently to the GP again when the crèche her daughter Rebecca attends reported a meningitis B scare.

She says: "We were told it was suspected to have been in Rebecca's room in the crèche, although it was not confirmed and that really freaked me out.

"It's a big fear and it's reassuring to know that there is a vaccine to protect your children."

While babies and children under five are most at risk, it is recommended the vaccine be given to everyone under the age of 25, as young people are also vulnerable.

Now, Dr Neligan is keen to get her clinic up and running. She says: "It would be advisable for parents of children under two to request it privately from their GP so it can be tied in with their routine vaccination schedule and avoid further appointments for injection.

"We are happy to provide vaccination for children over two years of age or indeed for younger children if GP services are unable to provide it.

"We will assess the children first to make sure they are healthy and I am happy to be on the phone to address any concerns."

The vaccination at 3fivetwo costs £195 for two doses. Children aged between two-six months will need four doses, those aged between six months and two years will need three and children over two and adults require two doses.

Check the signs

The first symptoms of meningitis B are usually fever, vomiting, headache and feeling unwell, just like many mild illnesses but there are other things to look out for, and they include:

Cold hands and feet/shivering

Rash anywhere on the body

Stiff neck

Dislike of bright lights

Confused/delirious

Seizures may also be seen

Not everyone gets all of these symptoms

In some cases of meningitis, a rash might not appear

For further information contact the Meningitis Research Foundation at www.meningitis.org

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