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Meningitis B: The battle continues


    Sophia Courtaux considers the recent growing public demand for increasing the age range of children eligible for the new Meningitis B vaccine.

    By Sophia Courtaux

Just shy of a year ago my colleague, Kerstin Kubiak, wrote about the success of charity, Meningitis Now, in convincing the government that a vaccine for Meningitis B should be made available to all babies in the UK. Sadly, nearly 12 months later, panic has set in once again with this devastating infection.

The battle continues: Faye’s story

No one could ignore the story of two year old, Faye Burdett from Maidstone, who passed away on 14 February 2016 after contracting Meningitis B. She fought the infection for 11 days before her parents were given the heart-breaking decision between an operation to amputate Faye’s leg and arm followed by plastic surgery and the risk of her still dying, or to let her pass away of her own accord.

This sad news came as former England Captain, Matt Dawson, also revealed his two-year-old son Sami had survived the infection after ‘two weeks from hell’.

Father of two, Lee Booth from Gateshead, set up an online petition in September 2015 when one of his daughters was deemed ‘too old’ to have the Meningitis vaccine on the NHS. The campaign, which seeks to widen the vaccination programme to all children at least up to the age of 11, attracted 900 signatures. That was until Faye’s parents shared photographs of their daughter’s condition on social media, and the support skyrocketed.

With over 700,000 signatories, the petition has become the most signed in parliamentary history. As a result, Government policy means that this topic will be considered for debate in parliament.

The current vaccination programme

In September 2015, a new Meningitis B (Bexsero) vaccination programme was commenced for all new born babies in UK. The programme was to be backdated to include those born from May 2015 and is offered to babies at two months, four months and a booster at 12 months. Faye was too old for the vaccine.

Whilst the introduction of vaccinations for babies was a very positive step, the age restrictions for vaccination still leaves thousands of children unprotected, even more so when there is an apparent global shortage of the vaccine for those who are wanting/having to pay privately. Manufacturers, Glaxo Smith Klein, have advised that they will not be in a position to provide private clinics with the vaccine until the summer.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “When any new immunisation programme is introduced, there has to be a date to determine eligibility. A decision based on the best independent clinical recommendation to ensure we can protect those children most at risk of Men B”.

Eligibility is one thing, but the statistics cannot be ignored: it is reported that 1,850 children contract Meningitis B every year, with 1 in 10 resulting in death and many more in severe disability. This mortality and morbidity rate, coupled with the difficulties there are in diagnosing Meningitis B in any event (as the symptoms can be very similar to those of other, less serious infections), are surely arguments in favour of a routine vaccination programme that is not age-specific. For example, teenagers are thought to be significant carriers of the infection; inoculating more younger children could decrease this carrier pool and prevent the spread to more vulnerable children.

The future

With the on-going campaigns by affected families, overwhelming public support and the continuing hard work of the charities involved, the government cannot ignore the mounting pressure this topic is creating.

Having acted for children who have suffered meningitis, usually compounded by delays in diagnosis and treatment, I and my colleagues have seen the awful impact of this infection.  It seems to me that the old idiom ‘prevention is better than cure’ is definitely appropriate in the case of meningitis.  We hope the government keep this high on the political agenda and consider widening the current vaccination programme for this devastating infection, as well as investigating the shortage of the vaccine, and will continue to follow the news on this closely.

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