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New vaccine to beat meningitis B baby killer

Parents offered jab to tackle threat of meningitis B in ‘historic step forward’

By Lisa Smyth

Published 01/09/2015

A baby getting an injection
A baby getting an injection

A life-saving vaccine which helps to prevent deadly meningitis B is being offered to babies across Northern Ireland from today.

The jab is available to babies born on or after July 2015 and doses are given at two months old, four months old and when the child is one year old.

The Government's expert panel on vaccinations recommended in March 2014 that a meningitis B immunisation programme should be introduced.

However, negotiations between health bosses and the drugs company over the cost delayed the introduction of the programme.

There was further uncertainty over whether the vaccination would be made available in Northern Ireland as a result of the deepening financial crisis in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

The vaccine will help to protect babies against infection by meningococcal group B bacteria, which can cause deadly meningitis and blood poisoning. It can strike at any age, killing one in 10 and leaving a third of survivors with life-changing after-effects as severe as deafness, brain damage and loss of limbs. Babies, children and young adults are most at risk.

Health Minister Simon Hamilton said he was pleased that the vaccine was being added to the routine childhood vaccination programme in Northern Ireland.

"This is an historic step forward in fighting this devastating disease," he said. "I would encourage the parents of every eligible baby to protect their child with this vaccine."

Dr Richard Smithson, Consultant in Health Protection at the Public Health Agency, said: "Meningococcal group B bacteria are a serious cause of life-threatening infections, including meningitis and blood poisoning, and are the leading infectious killer of babies and young children in the UK, so it is an important development that we are now able to vaccinate babies against it.

"In addition to vaccinating babies born after 1 July, a temporary catch-up programme also begins today with children born between May 1 and June 30 this year also being offered the Men B vaccination.

"They will be offered this when they attend for their routine immunisation appointments at their GP rather than having to make any additional appointments.

"The Men B vaccine will help guard your baby against meningococcal B bacteria, so it is important that you help protect your child with this immunisation."

Although this vaccine will greatly reduce the chances of getting meningitis, there are some strains it does not protect against, therefore it is still important to know the signs and symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia.

These include fever, cold hands and feet, vomiting and diarrhoea, drowsiness, irritability, dislike of bright lights, severe headache or muscle pains, pale, blotchy skin with or without a rash, convulsions and a stiff neck.

Questions and answers

Q. What is meningitis?

A. Meningitis is a deadly infection of the meninges — the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can be passed on through close contact. Babies and young children are most vulnerable.

Symptoms include a high fever with cold hands and feet, being agitated or not wanting to be picked up, confusion, vomiting and headaches. Some babies become drowsy, floppy and unresponsive, grunt or breathe rapidly and have an unusual high-pitched or moaning cry.

A red rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it is another sign.

Q. How many people are affected?

A. Figures suggest that across the UK between 500 and 1,700 people every year suffer from meningitis B, with around one in 10 dying from the infection and many more left with disabilities. In 2011/12, there were around 2,350 cases overall of bacterial meningitis and septicaemia in the UK.

There are two vaccines against other types of meningitis. The meningitis ACWY vaccine is currently being offered to 17 and 18-year-olds and first-time university students, while the meningitis C vaccine is given to babies as part of routine childhood immunisations.

Q. Is the new vaccine safe?

A. According to the NHS, almost 8,000 people, including more than 5,000 babies and toddlers, have been given the vaccine during clinical trials, with no safety concerns. Babies can develop a fever within the first 24 hours after vaccination.

Parents have been urged to give their babies liquid paracetamol at the time of injection to help reduce the risk of a fever.

The vaccine will be given to babies aged two months, followed by a second dose at four months and a booster at 12 months.

Q. Why has it taken so long to be introduced?

A. Cost negotiations between the vaccine’s manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, and the Government led to delays in introducing the vaccine.

Belfast Telegraph

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