England

Meningitis B: Is there enough vaccine to go round?

syringe Image copyright Science Photo Library

As hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition for the meningitis B vaccine to be given to all children, BBC News asks why it is limited to babies of a certain age - and whether there is enough of it to go round.

The issue was thrust into the news when the mother of two-year-old Faye Burdett, who died from the B-strain of the infection, shared a photograph of her.

Former England rugby player Matt Dawson has also revealed his child suffered from the C-strain of the illness. His toddler son Sami is now recovering well. A vaccine for meningitis C is available free for all children as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme.

At the moment though, the vaccine - called Bexsero - for meningitis B is only available free for babies born on or after 1 May 2015. The reason behind this is that babies and children under five are the most at risk, with a peak age of five months.

However, if the carers of children who are too old to qualify for the vaccine free on the NHS want them to have the inoculation, they can buy it privately.

Or can they?

The supplier of the vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline, has released a statement to say: "Due to unexpected global demand for Bexsero during 2015, we are experiencing supply constraints during the first half of this year.

"Although vaccination through the NHS childhood programme has been prioritised and is unaffected, we have unfortunately had to ask private clinics temporarily to not start new courses of vaccination.

"Children who have already started their course of the vaccine privately should still be able to receive their follow-up doses.

"We know the unexpectedly high demand for the vaccine reflects the importance parents have placed on protecting their children from meningitis B, so we are working hard to increase supply, and expect to have increased stock by summer 2016."

Image copyright Meningitis Now
Image caption Two-year-old Faye Burdett died from meningitis B. Her mother released a photograph of her daughter in hospital, with the distinctive skin rash which accompanies meningitis, in order to raise awareness of the infection

Clinics across the country are telling worried parents they can join a waiting list for the vaccine. Boots UK, one of the leading pharmacies in the country, announced in November it was introducing a private meningitis B vaccination service for children aged two and older.

But now it has said the service is unavailable for new patients, due to a shortage in the market. CityDoc, the largest supplier of the vaccine outside of the NHS, said it was unable to offer it to new patients.

Babies who qualify for the free NHS vaccination are unaffected by the shortage.

Stocks are expected to return to normal levels by July, GlaxoSmithKline said.

What is meningitis B?

  • A bacterial infection that usually affects children under one year old
  • There are about 1,200 cases each year in the UK
  • Symptoms include a high fever with cold hands and feet, confusion, vomiting and headaches
  • With early diagnosis and antibiotic treatment, most people will make a full recovery
  • It is fatal in about one in 10 cases - and about one in four of those who survive are left with long-term problems, such as amputation, deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties
  • Meningitis is an infection of the meninges - the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord
  • There are effective vaccines against other strains of meningitis - but, until now, not against meningitis B

Bexsero protects against infection by meningococcal group B bacteria, which are responsible for more than 90% of meningococcal infections in young children.

The Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) said "GPs and travel clinics throughout the UK and Ireland have been informed that the vaccine is available.

"You should start by asking your own GP for the vaccine, as if they can provide it, this is likely to be the least costly option.

"GPs may not be able to offer the vaccine to their own patients, but they may be able to arrange it via another surgery on private prescription.

"You can also get the vaccine from a travel vaccination clinic in your area, or a private GP practice."

Meningitis B

£75

Estimated cost of vaccination jab

  • 3 Vaccination jabs required for protection

  • 4 million Children in the at risk 0 to 4 age bracket

  • 1 in 20,000 Incidence rate of meningitis B in children aged one to four

Thinkstock

As a guideline, the NHS list price of the vaccine is £75 a dose, excluding VAT, although GPs or clinics can set their own charges for administration, meaning prices in excess of £150 a dose are not unusual.

More than one dose of the vaccine is needed for sufficient protection - the total number depends on the age of the person being vaccinated, but for some families it can be prohibitively expensive.

"I've got three kids and I want them all to have the jabs," said Jane Hunter, from Carlisle.

"I'd never put money before my kids' health, so I'll find the way somehow. Credit card maybe.

"Looking at that poor little girl who died it's worth it."

Sue Davie, chief executive of Meningitis Now, said: "Although the introduction of the Men B vaccine on the childhood immunisation scheme for young babies was a momentous achievement, saving thousands of lives, there are still so many, like Faye, left unprotected.

"We continue to campaign to see the Men B vaccine rolled out, particularly to at-risk groups, to ensure a future where no-one in the UK loses their life to meningitis."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "When any new immunisation programme is introduced, there has to be a date to determine eligibility. A decision is based on the best independent clinical recommendation to ensure we can protect those children most at risk of Men B.

"When our nationwide Men B vaccination programme was introduced last year, England became the first country to protect our babies from this devastating disease."

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