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Tuesday, May 4, 1999 Published at 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK


Vaccine breakthrough for meningitis

The new vaccine could wipe out one type of meningitis, say campaigners

A new set of vaccinations which are effective against a deadly strain of meningitis could be introduced in the UK by next year.

There is an existing vaccination against the C strain of meningococcal meningitis.

But it is not effective in treating infants under 18 months old - the highest risk group - and it does not offer long-term protection.

The meningitis file
The new set of vaccinations have been the subject of a number of trials, including tests on at risk groups: young children, teenagers and young adults.

"They have shown very positive results," said a spokeswoman for the National Meningitis Trust.

"People have responded very well to the vaccine and it has given them good protection."

"This could wipe out 1,000 cases a year," she added.

The BBC's Fergus Walsh: "The vaccine could become part of the immunisation programme for infants"
The tests show that infants given two or three doses of the vaccine had complete protection against the disease.

Campaigners hope the treatment can be introduced in the next 18 months.

The Department of Health says there are still a number of hurdles to go through before the vaccine is licensed and manufactured.

But a spokeswoman said: "This looks most promising."

Routine immunisation

Campaigners believe the vaccine could be offered on a routine basis to infants, as part of their overall vaccination programme for diseases such as mumps, measles and polio.

And it may also be given to school children and university students who have been badly hit by the brain disease.

Health officials are said to be investigating how best to use the vaccine for these groups.

The National Meningitis Trust says it believes cost will not be a factor.

"The Department of Health has to balance cost against saving lives and reducing the risk of permanent disability.

"This is a subject of major public concern," said a spokeswoman.

Deadly disease

One in 10 people who contract meningitis die of it and one in seven are left with a permanent disability, including brain damage.

The C strain of meningitis has been at the centre of outbreaks across the UK in the last few years.

Although the B strain is the most common one in the UK, there have been a rising number of C strain cases in recent years.

Around a decade ago, the B strain accounted for 80% of meningitis cases in the UK and only 20% of cases were caused by the C strain.

However, this proportion is now 60% to 40%.

Meningitis experts do not know why there has been a growth in the C strain, but they say there appears to be a particularly virulent type of C strain around.

[ image:  ]
"There has been a similar pattern in other countries and, in some, the C strain has peaked and fallen off," said the National Meningitis Trust.

"If we have this vaccine, we can hopefully wipe it out almost altogether."

Manufacturers of the new set of vaccinations are to begin applying for a product licence this week.

The B strain, however, continues to be the most prevalent in the UK and there is no vaccination for it at present.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the brain lining and is mostly caused by bacteria and viruses.

Viral meningitis is more common than bacterial, which includes meningococcal meningitis, and is rarely life-threatening.

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