Page last updated at 00:20 GMT, Saturday, 25 April 2009 01:20 UK

Meningitis cases 'at record low'

Tumbler test
If a rash does not fade when a glass is rubbed over it, it may be meningitis

Cases of bacterial meningitis are at a record low because of the success of NHS immunisation programmes, the government has revealed.

The incidence of Hib meningitis has fallen 99%, from around 800 cases annually to a record low of 12 cases last year in under-fives.

Meningitis C cases have also fallen from around 700 annually to less than one a year since a jab came in in 1999.

Experts said the figures emphasised why vaccinations were important.

A Meningitis UK spokeswoman said: "It is vital that youngsters are given the vaccines available."

These protect against Hib meningitis, meningitis C and pneumococcal meningitis.

Current figures show 92% of babies in the UK receive the combination jab, which includes Hib, by the age of one.

The same proportion have the meningitis C and pneumococcal jabs by the same age.

Take-up of the second Hib and meningitis C jabs, given before the age of five is high at 93%, but the proportion getting the pneumococcal pre-school booster by five is just 81%.

Long-term effects

Meningitis is caused when the lining of the brain and spinal cord - the meninges - become inflamed, usually as a result of an infection.

The infection can be caused by viruses or bacteria, and may also develop following serious head injuries.

Viral meningitis is far more common than bacterial meningitis, but far less serious and most people recover completely within a couple of weeks.

Experts believe there are thousands of cases a year, but most people do not require medical treatment. Even when they do it is hard to pinpoint the specific virus which has made them ill.

Cases of meningitis are at a record low
Health Secretary Alan Johnson

However, the bacterial form of the disease is fatal in one in 10 cases.

Many of those who recover are left with long-term conditions including hearing loss, brain damage, paralysis, and seizures.

Since the meningitis C vaccine was introduced in 1999, deaths from the disease have fallen from a high of 79 to an average of less than one death per year.

A vaccine against pneumococcal meningitis was introduced two years ago.

Since then, cases have fallen from around 300 to around 40 a year and it is estimated that over 900 serious cases have been prevented, saving over 50 lives.

'Remain vigilent'

Health Secretary Alan Johnson said: "Cases of meningitis are at a record low."

But experts warn that more work is needed on a vaccine against meningitis B, which now accounts for 90% of cases.

The three UK meningitis charities are joining together to mark the world's first international Meningitis Day.

Sue Davie, speaking on behalf of the charities, said: "We see the devastating impact of meningitis on people every day.

"There are vaccines for some forms of bacterial meningitis which are part of the UK childhood immunisation programme, saving many lives since their introduction.

"It is really encouraging that a Meningitis B vaccine is in the pipeline but we must remain vigilant for the signs and symptoms of the disease."

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