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Friday, February 12, 1999 Published at 10:25 GMT


Call for mass meningitis vaccine programme

Thousands of children in south Wales have been vaccinated

A group of doctors is calling for children who enter primary school to be routinely vaccinated against meningitis.

Dr Higson and Stephen Thornton on the vaccine debate
They say the cost of vaccinating one person is the same as a Viagra pill.

The call comes as another south Wales school began mass vaccinations against the brain disease.

Dr Nigel Higson of the Primary Care Virology Group told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that countries like the USA and Spain had a more radical programme on meningitis vaccination.

[ image:  ]
He said: "10,000 people carry meningitis for every one case. There is a lot of disease in the community and we do not know which people are carrying it."

He added that vaccinating children when they started at primary school and every few years until they went to university would be cost effective.

"It would cost £7 a time - the same as a Viagra pill. It is very little compared to the impact of meningitis and the cost of immunisation campaigns like the ones going on now."

Meningococcal meningitis

Britain is now seeing the highest number of meningitis cases since the Second World War.

Currently, children are vaccinated against Hib meningitis, but the main cause of the recent outbreaks has been meningococcal meningitis.

[ image: Stephen Thornton: money could be better spent on existing immunisation programmes]
Stephen Thornton: money could be better spent on existing immunisation programmes
This comes in many forms and a vaccine exists against only the A and C strains.

However, its effect on children under 4 - the group most at risk - can be temporary and it lasts for only three to five years in older people.

Meningitis experts predict a new lifelong vaccine against the C strain will be on the market in the next few years.

Dr Higson said the C strain accounts for a third of all meningitis cases.

But efforts to find one for the B strain are proving more difficult.

Stephen Thornton, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents health authorities and trusts, said Britain had a better overall immunisation record than countries like the USA and Spain.

He thinks money would be better spent on ensuring existing mass vaccination programmes reached all children.

"We have to remember that money spent on this is money not spent on other things," he said.

But Dr Higson said a lot of NHS money was now being wasted on unnecessary treatment and would be better spent on a meningitis vaccine programme.

South Wales

The call for a mass vaccination programme came as Y Pant School, in Talbot Green, Mid Glamorgan, began treating about 1,000 pupils and staff with antibiotics.

Two of the school's sixth-formers were admitted to hospital with suspected meningitis on Thursday.

Valerie Jones: "A governor is urging that the vaccination be extended to all the schools in the area"
One boy, aged 17, is critically ill. Doctors believe he may have the meningococcal form of the brain disease.

His 16-year-old classmate is said to be "stable" and is undergoing tests to identify the exact nature of his illness.

Three people, including a 15-year old boy, have died of meningitis in Pontypridd, which is 10 miles from Talbot Green.

One 16-year-old boy remains seriously ill but is improving. Seven other youngsters are recovering.

Vaccinations of 1,800 pupils and staff took place earlier this week at three schools in Pontypridd in a bid to halt the spread of the disease.

Dr Evans said it was "extremely unusual" to have four schools in South Wales with two or more cases of meningitis.

"But we are seeing this against a backdrop of a very high incidence of meningitis and septicaemia at this time of year," he said.

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