Trials of new vaccines are showing promising results against the disease which attacks unpredictably, with unnerving speed and ferocity. There are 2,000 cases of meningitis a year, mainly in babies and young children, with 150 to 200 deaths.
The trials, carried out by the government's Public Health Laboratory Service, with backing from the health department, are testing vaccines against the two commonest strains of bacterial meningitis, B and C. The results were presented yesterday to a meeting of 400 experts at a national conference on meningitis in London.
Dr Keith Cartwright, group director of the Public Health Laboratory Service in the South-west and a co-ordinator of the trials, said the findings were "very exciting".
One study carried out on 100 children in Gloucester, which was the focus of a major outbreak of meningitis in the mid-1980s, was the first in the world to demonstrate that a vaccine against the group B strain successfully provides protection in babies aged under one year, he said. The unpublished study showed the effect was modest but it indicated that scientists were on the right track.
Two other trials of vaccines against the group C strain, tested on babies aged two to four months, had shown they were both safe and effective.
Dr Cartwright said: "My guess is that we will have a vaccination against the group B strain of the disease within 10 years. I expect we will have to keep re-formulating it to keep up with changes in the strain."Reuse content