A vaccine against meningitis B that could save thousands of lives has been licensed in the UK and Europe, it was announced yesterday.

The vaccine, called Bexsero, has taken 20 years to develop and is expected to virtually eliminate the toll from the disease which kills and maims hundreds of children every year.

But the cost, which has yet to be announced by its Swiss makers Novartis, could prevent its being made swiftly available through the national vaccination programme.

It has been more difficult to develop than other meningitis vaccines (against different strains) and is likely to cost considerably more.

Campaigners yesterday urged the Government to make it available as soon as possible after a previous jab against pneumococcal meningitis took five years after licensing to be included in the national programme.

The vaccine will be available to buy privately when it is launched by Novartis soon. It has been licensed for use in babies from age two months and provides 73 per cent protection against the disease.