21 March 2015
Last updated at 11:06
Negotiations on a suitable price for the meningitis B vaccine are still going on after a year
Delays in introducing a vaccine that protects against a deadly form of meningitis are putting the lives of children at risk, campaigners say.
A year ago, expert advisers for the government recommended the meningitis B vaccine be given to babies from two months old across the UK on the NHS.
But a cost-effective price has not yet been agreed with the manufacturers.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC he was hopeful that a deal could be reached “very soon”.
The manufacturers, GSK, are in discussions with the government.
Meningitis charities are calling for urgent action from the prime minister and the health secretary to conclude negotiations and introduce the vaccine.
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We appeal that a decision is made imminently, so should the vaccine be introduced, it can begin to save children’s lives”
Dr Ian Maconichie
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
Mr Hunt said since the company that initially developed the vaccine had been taken over by GSK, there had been a “substantial” change in price and that he feels “very encouraged”.
He added that while the vaccine had to be introduced at the “right price”, a “deadlock” had now been broken.
Mr Hunt, who spoke to GSK chief executive Sir Andrew Witty within the past week, said: “We do need them to be reasonable, but we certainly want to do everything we can to make sure that we get this vaccine out there.”
He said that as the father of a 10-month-old baby girl, he understands how “terrifying” the “absolutely terrible” disease was for parents.
“This is affecting nearly 2,000 children every year, a tenth of whom tragically lose their lives, so we would love to be the first country in the world to make this vaccine widely available,” added the health secretary.
Meningitis is a bacterial infection that usually affects children under the age of one. There are about 1,870 cases of meningitis B 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 children will make a full recovery.
But it is fatal in one in 10 cases – and about one in four of those who survive is left with long-term problems, such as amputation, deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties.
GSK’s list price for a single dose of Bexsero – the vaccine in question – was £75, but that figure would not necessarily apply if it was used in a mass vaccination programme, the company said.
The company recently acquired Bexsero as part of a recent transaction with Novartis.
Sue Davie, from charity Meningitis Now, said: “Too many of our children are needlessly dying or being left disabled due to this lethargic bureaucracy and this government’s inability to conclude a deal.
“How can it take eight months for two parties to negotiate on one item, especially when that item is a vaccine that will save lives and prevent disability?”
She said the UK had one of the world’s highest meningitis B rates, killing more of the country’s under-fives than any other infectious illness.
What is meningitis?
• Meningitis is an infection of the meninges – the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord
• Meningococcal bacteria are common and carried harmlessly in the nose or throat by about one in 10 people
• They are passed on through close contact
• Anyone can get meningitis but babies and young children are most vulnerable
• Symptoms include a high fever with cold hands and feet, agitation, confusion, vomiting and headaches.
QA: Meningitis B vaccine
Matthew Snape, a consultant in general paediatrics and vaccinology at the Children’s Hospital, Oxford, told BBC Breakfast it was “very frustrating for everyone involved” that negotiations were still under way.
Dr Snape, who works with the Oxford Vaccine Group, which conducted clinical trials on the vaccine, said: “The published suggested cost effective price is between £3 and £7 per dose and the listed price is around £75 a dose, so there’s a big discrepancy there and there has been a year of negotiation.
“It’s very frustrating for everyone involved. Seeing children come in with Men B disease – that’s clearly very frustrating.”
But he added: “We can’t ignore health economics.
“There’s a limited budget in the NHS and that has to be used in the most effective way possible.”
Consultant paediatrician Matthew Snape said the delay was “frustrating”
Dr Ian Maconichie, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said a decision was needed urgently.
“One year on, we appeal that a decision is made imminently, so should the vaccine be introduced, it can begin to save children’s lives and spare some from severe preventable disability as soon as possible.”
There are several different strains of meningitis infection.
Vaccines are already given to babies in the UK to protect against meningitis C.
Last week, Public Health England announced that teenagers would soon be vaccinated against meningitis W after a steep rise in the number of cases.
Prof Snape said the meningitis B vaccine would also protect against meningitis W, which was another reason he believed it should be introduced.
The parents of 16-month-old Harmonie-Rose Allen, who lost all her limbs after contracting meningitis B, said they did not want other families to suffer as they had.
Her mother Freya Hall said of the vaccine: “I just don’t know why it’s not in yet. I am so upset that it’s not brought in.”
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