Authorities say "No" to meningitis vaccine

Posted by Kym Provan on

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As someone with a personal interest in the subject, I have written blogs about the life-threatening consequences of bacterial meningitis, and the speed at which the infection can take hold. 

Families who have been affected by the disease will be all too familiar with the devastating impact that meningitis can have upon the entire family and the long term effect that it can have upon their lives.

I was therefore disappointed to read yesterday, that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JVIC) has recommended against the introduction of Bexsero, a vaccine targeting meningitis B, into infant vaccination schemes in the UK. In 1999 a vaccine against meningitis C was introduced into the programme and that has been extremely successful in significantly reducing the number of adults and children affected by that particular infection.

The vaccine was licensed for use in the EU in January this year and it is suggested that it has been found to be effective against the vast majority of the known strains of meningitis B. The BBC article refers to there being on average 1,870 cases of meningitis B each year in the UK. Certainly the figures published by the Health Protection Agency, indicate that there are on average around 800 cases of laboratory confirmed meningitis B in England and Wales alone, and it is believed that these cases are probably underreported.  Statistically the mortality rate is around 10% of all those affected, and where a patient does survive the disease, around a quarter suffer significant and long term injury.

I can therefore fully appreciate why a number of meningitis charities have been campaigning for the introduction of the new vaccine into the childhood immunization programme (e.g. Meningitis UK, the Meningitis Help Charitable Trust and the Meningitis Research Foundation). Unfortunately however, it is not quite as simple as that. It is also rather telling that reportedly, no other EU country has yet commenced using the vaccine.

When considering what drugs and treatments, including vaccinations, should routinely be made available on the NHS, strict criteria have to be met, demonstrating both the effectiveness of the proposed treatment from a medical perspective, and the cost-effectiveness of the treatment overall. In very simple terms: How many people need to be treated, at what cost and with the risk of what side effects, to save one life or prevent one case of serious disability?

Whilst many would argue, particularly the families of those who have been affected by meningitis B, that the cost should not come into it if there is a likelihood of saving just one life (often a child's life), in reality there is no bottomless public purse, and cost considerations have to be taken into account. This has become increasingly evident in recent economic times.

The other difficulty in determining the medical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a new treatment, is that usually the results of large scale studies will need to be analysed, and in the case of the new meningitis B vaccine, the JVIC has reported that this information is just not available at present and that they cannot therefore currently recommend the introduction of routine vaccination.

Although this is disappointing, it is not the end of the story. The vaccine remains a very positive development in the continuing fight against this terrifying disease and it is to be hoped that once the necessary data and information becomes available, we shall be a step closer to seriously reducing the number of people, mainly children, who are badly affected by meningitis B every year.  

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About the Author

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Kym specialises in clinical negligence claims and heads our clinical negligence team in Southampton.

Kym Provan
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023 8085 7317

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