The scourge of meningitis, which kills scores of children and maims hundreds more in Britain every year, could be virtually eliminated thanks to a recent medical breakthrough.
Scientists have announced positive results from trials of a vaccine that provides 80 per cent protection against the main cause of the disease.
Experts hailed the advance as an "extremely encouraging step forward" in the battle against the bacterial infection, which can strike in minutes and kill in hours.
Generations of parents have lived in terror of the disease because it targets the young, strikes with unnerving speed and ferocity, and kills one in 10 of those it infects. Many of those who survive it suffer permanent disabilities that can include deafness, neurological problems and the loss of fingers and limbs.
In November 1999, a vaccine was introduced for meningitis C, which had previously claimed more than 100 victims a year, most of them previously young and healthy, and hospitalised more than 1,000. The Health Protection Agency estimates that over the past decade the vaccine has prevented 1,000 deaths and meningitis C has been "virtually eliminated".
Now scientists have developed a vaccine against meningitis B, the more common strain which accounts for 90 per cent of the remaining cases. There are about 1,600 cases of meningococcal disease caused by meningitis B each year requiring hospitalisation – and about 120 deaths.
Results from three trials of the vaccine, called 4CMenB, on more than 3,000 infants, toddlers and adolescents – presented at the European Society for Paediatric Infectious Diseases meeting in The Hague yesterday – show that it induces a robust immune response with few side effects, can be given together with other vaccines and protects against 80 per cent of 1,000 strains of the disease circulating in Europe.
A licence for the vaccine, manufactured by the Swiss multinational Novartis, is expected to be granted by the European Medicines Agency at the end of this year, after which it will be considered for introduction into the routine immunisation programme in the UK.
The vaccine is unlikely to be cheap. The one for meningitis C 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.
But Jamie Findlow, deputy head of the vaccine-evaluation unit at the Health Protection Agency, which worked closely with Novartis, said that, though complicated, it was "no more expensive than other vaccines to develop". He added: "This is the last piece of the jigsaw to allow us to provide protection against the most frequent causes of meningococcal disease."
The meningitis bacterium lives harmlessly in the noses and throats of one in 10 people but, for reasons that are not fully understood, can erupt into a life-threatening illness that causes inflammation of the membrane around the brain – the "meninges" – and can lead to death within hours. The bacterium can also enter the bloodstream, causing meningococcal septicaemia, a devastating infection that leads quickly to organ failure and death and is marked by a distinctive purple rash on the skin.
The 4CMenB vaccine was developed using a method called "reverse vaccinology" in which the genetic make-up of a single strain was first decoded. This yielded 600 novel proteins from which the vaccine was constructed, using genetic engineering to pick those that showed the greatest ability to stimulate the immune system.