For the first time since records began, no meningitis C deaths were recorded in the past year among under-19s. The news prompted the Government to claim victory in the fight to persuade families of the benefits of mass vaccination.
The annual report on immunisation, released today, shows that deaths from the disease, which have been in gradual decline since the introduction of a vaccine in 1999, last year fell to an unprecedented period of 12 months in which no young people are thought to have died from the virulent form of meningitis.
In a step hailed by experts as a landmark breakthrough, the controversial menigococcal C conjugate vaccination appears to have curbed the disease, with 500 deaths prevented over the past nine years.
Meningitis C, which causes inflamation of the lining of the brain and is particularly lethal when contracted by children, used to kill dozens of infants and young people each year. Hundreds of others who survived the disease suffered brain damage and amputations. Outbreaks among young people led to a concerted campaign in schools aimed at reassuring parents still concerned by the scare over the joint MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) jabs.
The legacy of that controversy is also revealed in the immunisation report, which finds that, while 85 per cent of children now receive one dose of MMR vaccine before their second birthday, the UK still falls short of the 90 per cent rate estimated by the World Health Organisation to produce "population immunity".
The Government is not claiming to have conquered meningitis. A girl of 10 died after being admitted into hospital with a suspected case in early April and the meningitis B strain is still claiming hundreds of lives. Trials have begun in Belgium to find a vaccine designed to eradicate all variations of the meningococcal B strain, which accounts for 60 per cent of all UK meningitis cases, killing approximately 250 people each year.
Ministers are preparing to use the fall in deaths from meningitis C to support their drive towards more check-ups through GP walk-in centres and polyclinics, which the Conservatives claim could cause a collapse in the number of traditional family doctors' surgeries.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, will today claim the Government is intent on "trying to abolish the family doctor service". During a local election tour in the North-west, he will say: "Labour's plans for a national network of polyclinics will see a thousand GP surgeries close in London alone – three-quarters of the total. Another 600 surgeries will close across the country."
A senior government source said: "The NHS of the future is about preventing illness and disease, not just treating them when they occur. That means the expansion of vaccines to eliminate killer diseases like meningitis and cervical cancer." He added that the Government would be promoting an expansion of screening for cancer, aneurisms and other conditions to catch and treat them early.
The facts about the disease
*Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the membranes lining the brain and spinal cord, and is caused by viruses and bacteria. It can lead to septicaemia.
*Meningococcal bacteria are common and are carried harmlessly in the throat and nose, particularly by teenagers and young adults. Only occasionally will the bacteria overwhelm an individual's defences to cause meningitis or septicaemia.
*Symptoms include a stiff neck, sensitivity to light and a purple bruise-like rash which does not fade under pressure.
*Between 3,500 and 4,000 cases are reported in the UK every year.
*The UK was the first country to introduce a meningitis C vaccine, in 1999. Researchers are now working on meningitis B, which accounts for more than 80 per cent of cases.