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Why have we had to wait so long for this decision?


For the parents of meningitis B victims, Friday’s announcement will be received first with relief and then with a question: why did it take so long? The vaccine in question, Bexsero, has been available and licensed for use for more than a year. You can already buy it privately for £75 a dose. (Children need between two and four doses to be protected.)

But government doctors decided last July it would not be cost effective to roll it out across the NHS for all children in the UK. That decision was met with dismay by campaigners and parents alike.

In the grim roll call of childhood diseases, meningitis is a name that carries a very particular terror. An illness that looks for all the world like a harmless bout of flu can, overnight, turn into a life-threatening condition.

In recent years, medicine has been winning the battle against the disease. Vaccines have been developed to almost wipe out some forms, saving thousands of lives. But the most common type – that caused by group B meningococcal bacteria, or meningitis B – remains at large. It killed 33 people in 2011-12, including 15 children under four.

If meningitis-related blood infection takes hold, often the only way to save a child’s life is to amputate a limb. Hundreds of children are left disabled every year. It is this which may have been key to the Government’s change of heart.

When the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) rejected the vaccine, the logic was that the Government could not afford to spend a considerable amount of money vaccinating all children against relatively rare meningitis B.

But campaigners and families said that this calculation had not taken into account the long-term costs – physiotherapy for children left without a limb; alterations to family homes to make them accessible to disabled children; months of income lost as parents are forced to become carers.

Today there will be delight that their voices have been heard. The vaccine is not 100 per cent effective, but it is likely that we will see a huge reduction in cases once it is rolled out.