Green light for vital meningitis vaccine that could save the lives of countless children

Hundreds of children’s lives will be saved - if the NHS can afford to give new jab to babies

One of Britain’s most feared diseases - which kills or maims hundreds of children every year - could be virtually eliminated after the first-ever meningitis B vaccine was approved by European regulators.

In the most significant breakthrough against meningitis in three decades, the new vaccine, called Bexsero, received a “positive opinion” from the European Medicines Agency today, paving the way for it to be licensed in the next few weeks.

The Government is now under intense pressure to provide the funds for the drug to be made swiftly available to babies in the national vaccination programme, alongside polio and diphtheria.

“Cost will be a key battleground between the Government and Novartis in the coming months,” a spokesman for Meningitis UK said. Trials show Bexsero, made by the Swiss multinational pharmaceutical company Novartis, provides 73 per cent protection against meningitis B, the main strain of the disease, which accounts for almost nine out of 10 cases of meningococcal meningitis in the UK.

In 2009-10 there were 2,074 cases of meningococcal meningitis in the UK, of which 1,870 were meningitis B.

Parents have lived in terror of the disease for generations because it targets the young, strikes with unnerving speed and ferocity and kills one in 10 of those it infects.

As many as a quarter of those who survive suffer permanent disabilities, including brain damage, deafness and loss of limbs.

Steve Dayman, founder of Meningitis UK, said: “This is a landmark moment in the fight against meningitis. It is vital that the vaccine is introduced in the UK Immunisation Schedule as soon as possible. It will save countless lives and prevent many people enduring the suffering caused by this devastating disease.”

In 1999, a vaccine against meningitis C was introduced, which until that time claimed more than 100 lives a year –most of them young and previously healthy children – and left more than 1,000 needing hospital treatment. The Health Protection Agency estimates that since it was introduced the meningitis C vaccine has saved more than 1,000 lives.

The meningitis B vaccine is unlikely to be cheap. Meningitis C vaccine costs £7.50 a shot and three shots are needed to provide full immunity. Developing a vaccine against the B-type was much harder and has long been regarded as the Holy Grail of meningitis research.

Andrin Oswald, division head for Novartis vaccines, told The Independent: “We have been working on this for 20 years. Why should we spend 20 years developing a vaccine without some reward? I hope the Government will recognise the effort we have put in and the value of the vaccine.

“It is a rare disease but it is a terrible and devastating disease. Once the vaccination is done it provides protection for decades to come. Calculating the cost of a life is a difficult thing to do. For a child who has lost both legs – what is the cost of that?

“We can eliminate a terrible problem. I believe society can afford to do that.”

Bexsero is expected to be available in Britain early in the new year. Experts said the granting of a licence for the vaccine was a formality after it received a positive verdict from the EMA.

Its adoption as part of the UK Immunisation Schedule is less certain and will depend on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which will consider its interaction with other vaccines as well as its cost.

The last major vaccine against meningitis – the pneumococcal vaccine – took five years to be introduced into the schedule. It was launched in the US and there was a long delay while experts assessed how its costs and benefits would translate to the UK.

Meningitis UK said the vaccine should be introduced as soon as possible “so it will automatically be given to children and start saving lives”.

The Department of Health declined to comment on the cost. The director of immunisation, Professor David Salisbury, said: “Meningitis is a considerable worry for many parents so we’re pleased that a meningococcal B vaccine may soon be licensed for use.

“The independent expert group on vaccines that advises the Government is currently looking at use of this vaccine and will provide advice in due course.”

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