Health: The end is nigh

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The Independent Culture
PROFESSOR LIAM Donaldson was in buoyant mood. As he launched the mass vaccination programme against meningitis C this week, the Government's Chief Medical Officer made the sort of claim that other doctors can only dream about.

"By the end of next year we hope to have confined this particular strain of meningitis largely to the history books," he was able to declare.

It is given to few to announce the demise of a disease, especially in the modern world where so many of the causes of ill-health prove intractable.

Yet here we have a strain of a deadly infection that claimed 150 lives last year and hospitalised 1,530 people, which should, according to plan, be eliminated within 14 months - no clearer testimony to the power of a public health programme.

Much will depend on the co-operation of the public, but there seems little doubt that that will be forthcoming.

Parents appear to have none of the anxieties about the meningitis C vaccine that they have shown over the triple MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) jab.

The deadly speed with which meningitis strikes, the youth of its victims and the publicity given to tragic cases have all but guaranteed that the public will regard this vaccination as one well worth having.

A few disgruntled GPs say they have not been given supplies to meet the expected demand. But, as Professor Donaldson has pointed out, Britain is the first country in the world to implement a mass vaccination programme using the new vaccine and a decision had to be made whether to offer it as it came off the production line or wait for manufacturers to stockpile supplies.

The Government opted, rightly in my view, to get it into children as fast as possible, and accept some supply problems.

A trickier question is whether the vaccine will instil a false sense of security in parents whose children have had it. Meningitis C accounts for 40 per cent of cases and the vaccine provides no protection against the 60 per cent of cases caused by the B strain of the virus. Parents must remain vigilant for signs of the disease in both vaccinated and unvaccinated children.

The signs are that this will be a victorious public health campaign against a deadly enemy. A shame, then, that a Government that came to power with grand, not to say grandiose, plans about improving the health of the nation by appointing Britain's first Minister of Public Health, appears to have lost its appetite for the broader campaign. While Alan Milburn, the new Health Secretary, has been announcing new targets for cancer and coronaries, the downgrading of the public health function has passed almost without notice.

Until Tessa Jowell departed for her new post at the Employment Office last month, she was Minister of State responsible for public health.

Her replacement, the rising star Yvette Cooper, holds the lower rank of Parliamentary Under Secretary. Without her own budget, Ms Jowell found it hard to make an impact. Despite her considerable powers, Ms Cooper is likely to find it even harder.