Brussels approval may see new meningitis B vaccine in Ireland
Parents’ fears of their child contracting meningitis may become a thing of the past following a decision by the European Commission to approve a vaccine for use against the strain most prevalent in Ireland.
The commission has approved Bexsero for use against the meningitis B strain of the disease. Drug giant Novartis, which developed the vaccine, said yesterday it was being evaluated for inclusion on Ireland’s national immunisation programme.
Ireland has the highest rates of meningitis infection in Europe, with over three times the average rate of the disease. Dubbed “the silent killer”, meningitis is feared by parents because it mostly affects young children, develops extremely rapidly and the symptoms are easily confused with less serious infections such as the flu.
One in 10 of those who contract meningitis dies and up to one in five survivors will suffer life-long complications such as limb loss, deafness and brain damage.
A spokesman for the HSE said vaccines were introduced into the childhood immunisation schedule based on the recommendation of an advisory committee and following the approval of the Department of Health.
The department will first have to consider the cost implications.
It is currently examining a potential yearly bill of €28 million for a new drug to treat 120 cystic fibrosis patients.
Meningitis C used to be the most prevalent form of the disease in Ireland but since the introduction of the meningitis C vaccine in 1999, this strain has all but disappeared. Meningitis B now accounts for more than 80 per cent of cases of meningococcal disease.
“This vaccine marks a fantastic breakthrough,” said Meningitis Research Foundation Ireland manager Diane McConnell. “It is vital that it is made available on the national immunisation programme.”
In 2009, Ireland recorded 3.01 cases of meningitis per 100,000 people, the highest rate in Europe. The UK is next on 1.93. Deaths from meningitis B are in decline, from 13 in 2000 to two in 2011.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms, which include fever, vomiting, headaches, a stiff neck and sensibility to light, can often resemble the flu, making it easy to misdiagnose. Under-fives are most at risk, and in Ireland meningitis and septicaemia are the leading causes of death from infectious disease among infants. Adolescents are also at significant risk.
With meningitis B, the outer coating of the bacteria is not well recognised by the immune system, making it difficult to develop a vaccine, until now.