A shake-up of the childhood vaccination programme to extend protection against infections that claim scores of lives has been agreed by ministers.

The Department of Health is due to announce next week that a vaccine against pneumococcal meningitis, which infects almost 400 children and kills up to 50 a year, is to be given to children in the first year of life. The vaccine is to be added to the existing programme and will increase to seven the total number given to children during their first 12 months.

To ease parental fears and counter claims that children are being over-vaccinated, the number of jabs against meningitis C, which is already part of the childhood vaccination programme, is to be reduced. Doctors say this will not affect the level of protection.

But campaigners fear there may be other changes to the programme which could reduce its effectiveness, involving a reduction in jabs to save costs.

Some 600,000 children are called to clinics and GP surgeries each year for vaccination, and more than 90 per cent coverage is required to provide "herd" or population immunity.

Officials believe that the scare over MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, given in the second year of life, which saw coverage fall to 80 per cent nationally and as low as 50 per cent in some areas, has subsided, and that parents are ready to accept a new vaccine.

When the vaccine against meningitis C was introduced in 1999, uptake soared within months to more than 90 per cent because of public fear of the disease.

The announcement of the new pneumococcal meningitis vaccine, Prevenar, had been delayed because of concerns about its cost of £34.50 a shot, more than the cost of all other childhood vaccines put together.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), a government advisory body, recommended in October 2004 that Prevenar should be added to the childhood vaccination programme, but specialists from the Health Protection Agency said it was not cost-effective.

That argument has been won by the JCVI, but ministers delayed giving the go-ahead for the vaccine because of fears about pressure on NHS budgets, with one in four NHS trusts facing a deficit at the end of the financial year. Those fears too now appear to have been overcome.

A member of the JCVI said: "We agreed this over a year ago and have been waiting for ministers to sign it off. It [the new vaccine] will be interspersed around meningitis C with at least two doses in the first year. Meningitis C will be reduced from three to two doses - thought to be sufficient for good protection.

"The new vaccine does provide very reliable protection against a damaging and killing disease. The cost may be high, but set against the cost of antibiotics, hospitalisation and lifelong disability for some children it is well worth it."

There are nearly 400 cases of pneumococcal meningitis and septicaemia in the under-fives in England annually. Research shows that the vaccine would give 80 per cent protection, preventing more than 300 of them.

Pneumococcal meningitis is the most lethal form of meningitis, killing one in six of those affected and leaving half of survivors with permanent disabilities such as deafness, cerebral palsy or brain damage.

Universal vaccination against pneumococcal meningitis has been introduced in the US, Canada and Australia. Estimates suggest it would save about 30 lives and spare 100 children from lifelong disability in the UK.

Current vaccination programme

* Babies receive their vaccinations in three doses given at two, three and four months of age.

* At each visit they receive five vaccines in one jab (diphtheria, tetanus, polio, whooping cough and Hib meningitis) and one vaccine against meningitis C in a second jab.

* In all, they receive six jabs in three separate visits.

* At 13 months they receive MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) in one jab.

* Between 3 years 4 months and 5 years they receive a booster of four vaccines (diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio) in one jab, and a booster of MMR.

* Between the ages of 13 and 18 they receive a booster of three vaccines (diphtheria, tetanus, polio) in one jab.

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