The risk of dying from meningitis has fallen sharply in five years as doctors and parents have become better at spotting the disease and hospitals have improved treatment, researchers report today.

The risk of dying from meningitis has fallen sharply in five years as doctors and parents have become better at spotting the disease and hospitals have improved treatment, researchers report today.

At St Mary's hospital, Paddington, west London, which has a "swoop and scoop" rapid response team for meningitis victims, death rates have plummeted by 60 per cent. In 1992 almost a quarter of the 40 children treated at the hospital died but by 1997, while the number treated had risen to more than 100, the death rate had fallen to 2 per cent.

Speed is essential in dealing with the disease. If treatment with antibiotics starts immediately, lives can be saved. The St Mary's team uses helicopters and special equipment to collect patients from across southern England and stabilise them during the journey to hospital.

The researchers say several factors are likely to have contributed to the improvement, but a specialist unit that can provide an immediate response is critical.

A separate study at Alder Hey children's hospital in Liverpool found that, between 1995 and 1998, 123 children were admitted with meningitis, of whom 11 died. The doctors said death rates had slumped, but the reason was unclear. They suggested heightened awareness of the disease had led to earlier recognition and treatment and that the hospital was better organised to give the right treatment. The introduction of meningitis C vaccine in 1999 had also helped.

The authors of the studies, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, warn that while meningitis C has decreased since the introduction of the vaccine – which is estimated to have saved 50 lives and prevented 500 cases last year – the incidence of meningitis B is increasing.

Cases of meningitis B have almost doubled from 567 in the first six months of 1997 to 1,056 in the first six months of 2001. A spokeswoman for the Meningitis Research Foundation said: "It is vital that the public do not become complacent, thinking that because their child has had the meningitis C vaccine they have protection. Nothing could be further from the truth."

The Department of Health is considering whether to introduce a vaccine against a third type of the disease, pneumococcal meningitis, which causes more than 200 cases and 40 deaths a year in Britain.

The vaccine, which is licensed in the United States, has been shown in trials to provide 94 per cent protection but costs £120 a child, almost as much as the total cost of all other jabs given to babies before they are 15 months old.

Dr Nicol Black, a consultant in communicable disease control in Newcastle, acknowledged the vaccine was "very expensive". But he said the vaccine's benefits extended beyond meningitis to respiratory diseases, which were widely under-diagnosed. "My advice is that this should be introduced. Our paediatricians are convinced that this vaccine will be introduced sooner or later. But the question is when."

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