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Experts hail meningitis jab U-turn
A vaccine against deadly meningitis B is set to be introduced on the NHS for young babies.
Under 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 after initially rejecting it last year.
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 saying it was considering new evidence and a range of views.
Today's announcement - 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".
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 is to start negotiations with Novartis on the cost of the vaccine as soon as possible.
Deputy chief medical officer Professor John Watson said: "Infants under one year of age are most at risk of meningitis B and the number of cases peak at around five or six months of age.
"With early diagnosis and antibiotic treatment, most make a full recovery. But it is fatal in about one in 10 cases and can lead to long-term health problems such as amputation, deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties.
"We will now be working closely with Novartis in the coming months and, if negotiations are successful, we hope to work with the other UK health departments to introduce a vaccine to prevent meningitis B as quickly as possible. This would make the UK the first country in the world to implement a nationwide vaccination programme."
Steve Dayman, 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.
"We thank our supporters for their determined campaigning and the JCVI for listening to our arguments on the true burden of this disease."
Around 1,870 people are estimated to contract meningitis B each year in the UK.
The Bexsero vaccine, approved by the European Medicines Agency more than a year ago, is estimated to cover around 88% of meningitis B disease.
Until now, vaccines have only protected against some other bacterial types of meningitis.
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.
Initial signs and symptoms in babies and children include a high fever with cold hands and feet, feeling agitated and not wanting to be touched, continuous crying or excessive sleepiness and difficulty in waking.
Children may also appear confused and unresponsive. A major - and late-stage - warning sign is a blotchy red rash that does not fade when a glass is rolled over it.
Professor Andrew Pollard, chairman of the JCVI and professor of paediatric infection and immunity at the University of Oxford, said: "Meningitis B disproportionately affects babies and young children and can be devastating.
"After very careful consideration, JCVI concluded that use of the new vaccine would reduce cases of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia and lead to a reduction in deaths, limb amputations and brain injury caused by the disease."
Christopher Head, chief executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation, said: "We are delighted that the JCVI have recommended vaccinating all babies against this most feared and deadly disease.
"It's a wonderful outcome which will save lives and spare countless families the trauma of seeing a loved one seriously disabled by the devastating after-effects of meningitis B.
"We pay tribute to the people who have suffered from this illness, whose bitter experience has helped demonstrate the compelling case for prevention."
Dr Helen Bedford, senior lecturer in children's health at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, said: "Meningococcal B disease is very serious. Clearly its prevention is highly desirable and the vaccine would be welcomed by parents and health professionals alike."
Dr David Elliman, immunisation expert at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said, if costs can be agreed, the decision "will be universally welcomed. Children's lives will be saved and some children will be spared severe preventable disability."
Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), said: "Worried parents and doctors will breathe a huge sigh of relief at today's announcement. Meningitis and meningococcal infection is a dreadful disease and its consequences can be devastating.
"This vaccine has the potential to save thousands of lives, primarily children, and GPs will play a major role in promoting the new immunisation programme to parents and in ensuring a successful rollout.
"The College has been very vocal in the campaign to introduce the vaccine and we are pleased that our advice, together with other expert input, has been heeded."
Earlier this year, a Mumsnet survey of more than 1,000 mothers for Meningitis Now found that two-thirds of parents could not afford the jab privately but 95% were in favour of it being introduced on the NHS.
Ana Nicholls, healthcare analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said: " Interestingly, one decisive aspect of the new review appears to have been the possible costs of litigation against the NHS over meningitis B, a factor that is not routinely taken into account in cost-effectiveness assessments."
She added: "Bexsero is a ground-breaking vaccine, but so far only Canada, Australia and a couple of US universities have decided to use it (and it doesn't yet have FDA approval).
"NHS usage will not only increase revenues from the drug but will also encourage adoption in other countries. It will also provide more evidence about the protection it offers, its cost-effectiveness, and any possible side-effects."
Dr Nelly Ninis, a medical adviser to the Meningitis Research Foundation, said the decision was a "monumental milestone" but older children should be protected too.
She said: "As a paediatrician who knows only too well the devastation that meningitis B causes, today's announcement from the Department of Health is a monumental milestone for babies in the UK.
"However, we must not forget that older babies, toddlers and teenagers will remain at risk of this deadly disease which can kill or maim within hours of onset unless they are also routinely vaccinated.
"We stand the best chance of coming close to eradicating this disease in the UK, as we have achieved with meningitis C, if all age groups are protected."