Much of the media are reporting the news that a new meningitis B vaccine called Bexsero has been licensed by the European Commission. This means the vaccine should soon be available for use in the UK.
What is meningitis B?
Meningitis B is a highly aggressive strain of bacterial meningitis which infects the protective membranes surronding the brain and spinal cord. It is very serious and should be treated as a medical emergency. If the infection is left untreated, it can cause severe brain damage and infect the blood (septicaemia). In some cases bacterial meningitis can be fatal.
How common is meningitis B?
The charity Meningitis UK, estimates that there are 1,870 cases of meningitis B each year in the UK. Meningitis B is most common in children under five years old, and in particular in babies under the age of one.
Initial signs and symptoms of meningitis B in babies include:
- a high fever with cold hands and feet
- they may feel agitated but not want to be touched
- they may cry continuously
- some children are very sleepy and it may be difficult to wake them up
- they may appear confused and unresponsive
- they may develop a blotchy red rash that does not fade when you roll a glass over it
For more information read Signs and symptoms of serious illness in babies.
Why is this meningitis B vaccine in the news?
While there are effective vaccines against the other common strains of bacterial meningitis (A, C, W-135, Y3), until now, there has been no vaccine against the B strain.
The development of a safe and effective meningitis B vaccine is the culmination of over 20 years of research and represents a significant breakthrough in disease prevention.
What do we know about the vaccine?
The vaccine, Bexsero, is thought to provide 73% protection against meningitis B, which should significantly reduce the number of cases. The vaccine can be administered to infants aged two months or older – either by itself, or in combination with other childhood vaccines.
The vaccine has been tested in clinical trials involving over 8,000 people.
In infants, it was found to have similar levels of safety and tolerability as other routine childhood vaccines. The most commonly reported side effects were:
- redness and swelling at the site of the injection
Will the NHS provide the vaccine free-of-charge?
At the moment that is uncertain. The body that advises on vaccination policy – the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) – has not yet made any announcement.
The JCVI is due to meet in June 2013, although they are unlikely to make a decision until they have had time to consider the evidence of cost-effectiveness and safety in greater detail. However, they may decide to ‘fast-track’ the decision.
The Bexsero vaccine is likely to be expensive and there is certainly no guarantee that the JCVI will rubber-stamp a positive decision.
There are currently three possibilities:
- the vaccine could be added to the routine NHS childhood vaccination schedule
- the vaccine may only be provided by the NHS to high-risk groups, such as people with a weakened immune system, in the same way as the seasonal flu jab
- the vaccine may only be available on a private basis