A year after Jeremy Hunt’s health department announced it would make a new vaccine against meningitis B available free on the NHS, stalled negotiations between the government and the drug manufacturer has resulted in private sales soaring in only the wealthiest regions of Britain.
MenB, the most common cause of life-threatening meningitis, which can quickly kill young children or leave them facing traumatic limb amputations, has a more damaging impact in socially deprived area with higher infant mortality rates.
Yet meningitis campaigners say the vaccine’s availability to only those who can afford it, demonstrates “health inequality in Britain at its absolute worst.”
Figures on the private sales of the Bexsero vaccine, seen by The Independent, show that nearly 80 percent of the parents in England who can pay up to £1000 to protect their young children, are from London, the South East and the South – the wealthiest parts of Britain.
The manufacturers’ data from the North East, which has the lowest disposable income in England, and where the disease prevalence is nearly twice the rate of the South East, shows less than two percent of total sales in that region.
The most striking indication of inequality is illustrated by comparing one London borough, Kensington and Chelsea, with the entire North East.
In the North East only 243 doses of the vaccine have been privately bought. In the wealthy London borough, which has the highest income and house price levels in Europe, private sales are above 1200.
All areas of Britain, from the wealthiest to those with higher levels of social deprivation, need to be protected if a critical “herd immunity” is to result.
Christopher Head, the chief executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) said that as negotiations between the government and the manufacturer were proceeding at a “snail’s pace” through this year’s meningitis season “children were dying every week.”
He said: “We know of hundreds of families who would love to have their children vaccinated, but simply cannot afford it.”
Mr Head repeated calls for the Bexsero vaccine to be made part of the NHS’s child immunisation schedule “so that’s free for all out children.”
The MenB vaccine was developed after 17 years of research by the Swiss multinational, Novartis. Earlier this year the pharmaceutical giant, GSK, bought Novartis's global vaccine business.
The vaccine, which is estimated to cover 88 percent of MenB disease in the UK, was recommended last year by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to become part of the UK’s routine child immunisation programme. The recommendation was an effective U-turn after it had been previously rejected on efficiency grounds.
Although David Cameron had been personally pressuring Mr Hunt to find a way of approving the vaccine, the momentum last summer to get the vaccine into the NHS and made available for use by GPs has stalled.
Last November the Department of Health accused Novartis of “holding the government to ransom.” Novartis rejected that accusation.
Following the GSK acquisition The Independent has learned that the price per dose now being offered to the DoH is below £10 – which is a fraction of the fee paid to GPs for the administration of the vaccine.
However DoH insiders said that at one point government negotiators recently threatened to end all discussions with the manufacturers, a move that would have left the drug as the only JCVI-approved vaccine never to have been adopted by the NHS.
Private sector doctors are currently charging parents of two young children up to £1000 for the required doses of the vaccine.
Leading scientists and researchers have serially petitioned the government for swift action against what they called “a parent’s greatest fear.” MRF estimate that there are around 3,200 cases of meningitis and septicemia every year in the UK.
This can initially be mistaken for milder illnesses, but if there is a failure to identify the disease, it can kill within hours. As many as one in ten of those affected can die, with a third of those who survive likely to be left with severe after-effects such as neurological damage, amputations, blindness and loss of hearing.
Mr Head said : “The government is seeking to obtain the best price – but this vaccine should be used to prevent suffering from this deadly disease, not just to save money.”
Following the acquisition, GSK said it “is committed to reaching a rapid conclusion to ongoing negotiations with the UK Government so that meningitis B vaccines can be made available to babies in the UK.”
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