NHS may offer new meningitis B vaccine for free

Campaigners hail announcement about Bexsero vaccine but health department says roll-out depends on cost-price from Novartis

A new vaccine against the deadly disease meningitis B is to be made available free on the NHS, provided it can be purchased from the manufacturer at “a cost-effective price”, the Department of Health has announced.

The plan is for the Bexsero vaccine to be introduced into the childhood vaccination programme after the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) found it effective in preventing MenB in infants and should be rolled out to babies starting at two months, subject to price.

The deputy chief medical officer, Professor John Watson, said: “We will now be working closely with Novartis [the manufacturer] in the coming months and if negotiations are successful, we hope to work with the other UK health departments to introduce a vaccine to prevent MenB as quickly as possible. This would make the UK the first country in the world to implement a nationwide vaccination programme.”

In an interim statement in July last year, the JCVI had said the vaccine was not cost effective, an announcement greeted with despair by campaigners. Although the JCVI has now revised its opinion, the health department is not writing a blank cheque.

The JCVI chair, Professor Andrew Pollard, said: “If the new vaccine can be purchased at a low price and is therefore cost effective for the NHS, it should be used in the routine immunisation programme for babies in the UK to prevent disease. Routine use of the MenB vaccine is expected to make an important contribution to the health of our population”

Infants under one year of age are most at risk of MenB and the number of cases peak at around five or six months of age. With early diagnosis and antibiotic treatment, most make a full recovery. But it is fatal in about one in 10 cases and can lead to long-term health problems such as amputation, deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties. Of the estimated 1,870 cases of meningitis B each year in the UK, about one in 10 of those affected will die and one in three will be left with debilitating after-effects such as loss of limbs or brain damage, according to campaigners.

After the interim statement in July, charities lobbied hard for a change of position. A letter from 330 leading medics and scientists was sent to the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, calling for the vaccine’s introduction.

Meningitis Research Foundation chief executive Christopher Head said: “We are delighted that the response we submitted has had an impact, and the voice of people affected has been heard. It’s a wonderful outcome which will save lives and spare countless families the trauma of seeing a loved one seriously disabled by the devastating after effects of MenB.”

Meningitis Now founder Steve Dayman MBE, who launched the meningitis movement in the UK after losing his baby Spencer to meningitis in 1982, said it was the “most monumental announcement in the fight against the disease in the 31 years I have campaigned to eradicate meningitis. This vaccine will save thousands of lives and spare survivors and their families the pain of living with life-changing after-effects. We thank our supporters for their determined campaigning and the JCVI for listening to our arguments on the true burden of this disease.”

Prof Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Bristol, said: “This was a complex, difficult and brave decision with far reaching consequences not only for the control of meningococcal disease but also for future vaccine development against severe but rare infections…It will now be vital to measure the effects of this new vaccine to reconfirm expectations of its impact.”

Haroon Siddique
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