The success of a vaccination campaign against meningitis is being blamed for a sudden rise in the number of deaths.

The success of a vaccination campaign against meningitis is being blamed for a sudden rise in the number of deaths.

Cases of meningitis and septicaemia have fallen from about 4,000 a year in the late 1990s to 2,446 last year following the introduction of a vaccine against meningitis C in November 1999. But in a bizarre twist the number of deaths rose last year by 17 per cent from 317 to 370 and is not far below the level before the vaccine was introduced.

Specialists say one reason for the rise in deaths is the mistaken belief that the vaccine protects against all forms of meningitis. The vaccine is only effective against meningitis C, cases of which have fallen by 90 per cent, but offers no protection against the equally deadly meningitis B.

The Meningitis Research Foundation is to launch a campaign this week to alert the public to the risks. A spokes-woman said: "We are extremely concerned about the rise in deaths. With cases declining this is the last thing we want to see. We don't know why deaths are rising but anecdotal evidence suggests many people think that since the introduction of the meningitis C vaccine the problem is solved."

The vaccine is given routinely to all babies in the first months of life and has also been administered in catch-up exercises to older children and young adults.

But the foundation says this has generated a false sense of security among the public and led parents and individuals to ignore symptoms, leading to delays in getting help.

"In a survey of students we found that half thought that, because they had been vaccinated, they couldn't get meningitis. They thought they were OK and didn't have to worry any more. Callers to our helpline said the same thing. So many mums said they didn't think their child could get the disease because they had been vaccinated."

Meningitis is dangerous because of the speed and ferocity with which it strikes. It can strike at any age but mostly affects infants and students in their late teens and urgent medical attention is essential to save lives.

Throughout the 1990s the death rate remained at about 10 per cent of cases. But in 2002 it rose to 12 per cent and last year to 15. "We hoped the rise to 12 per cent in 2002 was a blip. But when we saw it had gone up again last year, we were alarmed," the spokeswoman said. The foundation is launching its campaign, called "Race against time", tomorrow.

The 'Race Against Time' leaflet is available free by telephoning 080 8800 3344.

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