Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes (meninges) that surround the brain and spinal cord.
Anyone can get meningitis but statistics show that those most commonly affected are babies, children, teenagers and young adults.
Unsurprisingly, meningitis can be very serious if it is not treated quickly. It often leads to septicaemia (blood poisoning), which is life threatening and in fact meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia are the leading cause of death for children under the age of 5 in the UK.
To help combat this devastating disease, a number of vaccinations are available against some strains of the disease. These include Hib, Men C and pneumococcal. As a result of these vaccines, the numbers of cases of these types of meningitis have now been drastically reduced. However, there are other strains of bacteria that vaccines have not been developed against or which people are not routinely vaccinated against.
Meningococcal B (Men B) has long been the commonest cause of bacterial meningitis in the UK and this remains the case today.
In September 2015, the Men B vaccine was introduced as a means of helping to prevent this type of meningitis.
It is currently available on the NHS to children born after 1 May 2015. From 1 September 2015 it has been offered as part of the childhood standard immunisation programme. It is also readily available to people who, as a result of certain medical conditions, find themselves at an increased risk of developing meningitis.
It is possible to pay privately for the Men B vaccine however prices vary widely. For example, it would not be unusual to expect to pay £125 or more per dose of vaccine. The number of doses required depends on age, but for the best protection more than one dose will be needed.
The introduction of the Men B vaccine to only those born after 1 May 2015 has been, and still is, an area of great contention amongst the British public and the government.
Following the death of Faye Burdett on 14 February 2016, a 2 year old, who because of age had not received the vaccine1, a petition was started in the hope of persuading the government to extend the availability of the vaccine to all children, or at least to those up to the age of 11.
The petition received 823,345 signatures and was closed on 15 March 2016 ready to be debated in Parliament. At the forefront of the campaign to extend the vaccine to all children was the charity Meningitis Now, the UK’s largest Meningitis charity – offering support, funding research and generally raising awareness of the disease.
The topic was debated in Parliament on 25 April 2016 and the government’s response was as follows: “Men B vaccine is offered to infants, free on the NHS, at 2 months with further doses at 4 and 12 months. The programme, as advised by independent experts, offers protection to those at highest risk”.
Health minister, Jane Ellison MP announced that “Based on the evidence and advice that has been received – the Government cannot support extending the meningitis B vaccination programme to older children. But that doesn’t mean that the Government and Parliament won’t continue to look into this issue”.
Whilst there has been no agreement to extend the vaccine at this stage, the following did come out of the debate:
- A working group has been set up to look at how the decisions of cost-effectiveness of vaccinations are made;
- A study of meningitis in teenagers has been commissioned, with the report expected to be ready in about February 2017;
- Public Health England have been asked to create a national awareness campaign focusing on diseases such as meningitis and septicaemia, whose primary aim will be to alert parents to the signs and symptoms that they should be looking out for.
For now therefore, the fight goes on.
“As clinical negligence solicitors, unfortunately we sadly see many cases where meningitis has not been properly treated and the devastating effect this has on patients and their families. It is incredibly important to be vigilant and knowledge of the signs and symptoms to look out for is crucial, especially whilst the availability of the MenB vaccine is limited. Hopefully the working group that has been set up off the back of the petition finds that cost effectiveness means that the vaccine should be extended to all children”.
Meningitis: the key signs and symptoms2
- Blotchy rash
- High temperature over 37.5C
- Feeling and being sick
- Irritability and a lack of energy
- Aching muscles and joints
- Breathing quickly
- Cold hands and feet
- Pale, mottled skin
- Stiff neck
- Dislike of bright lights
Babies may also:
- Refuse feeds
- Be agitated and not want to be picked up
- Having a bulging soft spot on their head
- Be floppy or unresponsive
- Have an unusually high-pitched cry
- Have a stiff body