New vaccine for children aims to curb meningitis

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UP TO FIVE million children under the age of four will receive a new vaccination against bacterial meningitis over the next 12 months in the first routine immunisation programme against the disease.

Health experts said they hoped to eradicate the most common cause of bacterial meningitis, which affects 700 children each year. In addition, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) causes other life-threatening complications. It accounts for 1,300 hospital admissions annually, with at least 65 deaths and 150 cases of brain damage.

Dr Kenneth Calman, the Chief Medical Officer, said yesterday that 1 in 600 children under five years gets one of the severe forms of the disease.

Speaking at the launch of the new vaccine in London he said it was important that parents took advantage of Hib immunisation to protect their children not only against meningitis, but also other forms of Hib infection. These include blood poisoning, pneumonia, septic arthritis (joint and bone infections), and a form of croup which closes up the throat so badly that surgery may be needed to help breathing.

Dr Calman sought to reassure parents who were anxious about a new vaccination. This follows the withdrawal earlier this month of two brands of the MMR vaccine, which protects children against measles, mumps and rubella. There were concerns about the risk of 'mumps' meningitis linked with these two vaccines. Another form of the vaccine, MMRII, has not been linked with meningitis, and continues to be administered.

More than 20 million doses of Hib vaccine have been used worldwide with no serious adverse reactions, Dr Calman said. 'The only minor reports have been of minor local reactions at the injection site. And as the Hib vaccines are not live, no one can get meningitis from it.' The vaccination is used in the US, Canada, Finland, France and Germany.

Kathy Elliot, manager of family and child health at the Health Education Authority, warned parents that the vaccine would protect only against Hib meningitis, and not the meningococcal and pneumococcal forms of the disease.

She said parents should continue to be alert to the symptoms, which can ressemble flu, measles or other childhood illnesses. They include fever, vomiting, neck stiffness, dislike of bright light, a rash and increasing drowsiness.

All babies born after 1 August 1992 will receive the Hib vaccine when they have their diptheria, polio, tetanus and whooping cough immunisations at the age of two, three, and four months. Older babies and children will be immunised between now and December 1993. The younger ones will receive the Hib vaccine first, as babies between the age of 7 and 11 months are most at risk. By the age of four years most children have developed a natural immunity to the disease.

The campaign is backed by a pounds 1.25m advertising campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of Hib infection. The Government target overall for childhood immunisation is 95 per cent coverage by 1995. Present coverage is more than 90 per cent.