Every baby in Britain could be protected against meningitis B by the end of the summer, the company behind a new vaccine have said, after the Government announced the UK would become the first country in the world to provide universal vaccine coverage against the killer disease.
As revealed exclusively in The Independent, the Department of Health has recommended that the vaccine Bexsero should be added to the childhood vaccination schedule, after health advisors overturned previous guidance which had claimed it would not be cost-effective.
The Government will now enter into negotiations with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, which developed and manufactures the vaccine, over the cost of the roll-out to the NHS, with a view to immunising all infants at two months of age.
Novartis said that it was “committed” to working with health officials to ensure that the government’s recommendations were implemented “as early as summer 2014”.
Experts said that the decision of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), meant that the UK was once again leading the world on disease prevention.
Steve Dayman, the founder of the charity Meningitis Now, who lost his baby son to meningitis in 1982, said the decision was “the most monumental announcement in the fight against the disease” in 31 years of campaigning.
The Meningitis Research Foundation chief executive Christopher Head said he was delighted that children would be protected against a “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 MenB,” he said.
Doctors also welcomed the decision. Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said that worried GPs and patients would “breathe a huge sigh of relief” that the vaccine, which was licensed more than a year ago, would now be universally available.
The Department of Health yesterday insisted that its decision was “not a U-turn”. The JCVI’s interim advice, given in July, was that meningitis was such a rare disease that the benefits of vaccination would not justify the cost of providing the jab to every infant in the UK. The committee said at the time that it “lacked important evidence” on how well the vaccine would protect children.
Novartis, meningitis charities and the medical community has since stepped forward to provide further evidence of the vaccine’s effectiveness. However, the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is understood to have also come under mounting political pressure to ensure the vaccine was introduced, amid concerns that the Conservatives' record on the NHS could be damaged if only those parents who could afford to pay for the vaccine privately were able to protect their children.
David Cameron is said to have personally warned Mr Hunt over the potential political damage that rejecting the vaccine could cause.
The vaccine costs £75 per dose, but the average cost to fully protect children aged six months to two years is understood to be closer to £200. The vaccine has been available privately for several months and the vast majority of sales have been in some of the wealthiest parts of the country.
The Government’s deputy chief medical officer Professor John Watson said yesterday that officials would “work closely with Novartis in the coming months” adding that, if negotiations were successful, the Government would also work with health authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure a national rollout.