The release of devastating images of two year old Faye Burdett following her death from meningitis last month sparked a petition calling for all children to be given the meningitis B vaccine, which so far has amassed over 800,000 signatures. Whilst there are strong calls for the vaccine to be given to all children, the current decision is to offer the vaccine to those who are most at risk, and not every child – sparking debate amongst parents and those within the health community.
What is Meningitis B?
Meningitis B is a type of bacterial infection, which typically affects infants who are under a year old, amounting to around 1,200 cases each year in the UK. Whilst early detection usually results in a full recovery, around 10% of cases are fatal, with 1 in 4 children who survive being left with long-term conditions including deafness, epilepsy, learning difficulties and sometimes loss of limbs.
A vaccine against meningitis B is a new vaccine, and the UK is the first country to offer it as part of the government’s childhood vaccination programme. Until recently, there were only vaccines against other strains of meningitis and originally, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (the panel which provides recommendations to the government on vaccinations) advised against rolling out the vaccinations because it was not seen as cost effective. This was revised however once a cost for the vaccine could be agreed, with recommendations advising that babies should be given the vaccine from two months of age. Babies are then given a booster jab at four months, then 12 months, but it is not offered free to children who are older than this. Currently, parents who want their older children vaccinated must pay to do so privately, and stocks are currently in short supply across the world.
Why the petition?
As Faye Burdett was two years old, she was over the age to receive the vaccine as part of the NHS programme. The petition is asking for all children to be given the vaccination, up to the age of 11, and not just those at two months old. At present, the government believes that only those who are most at risk, those who are around five or six months of age, should be given the vaccine as it is believed it is not cost-effective to roll it out to all children.
The campaign has received support from former England rugby captain Matt Dawson, whose son also contracted meningitis recently. Speaking about the vaccination, Sue Davie, who is the Chief Executive of Meningitis Now, said:
“We are using our voice to support the petition to raise the profile of meningitis, keeping it high on the political agenda and increasing awareness among the public to prevent more lives being lost to this devastating disease.
Moving forward, we continue to campaign to see the Men B vaccine rolled out, particularly to at-risk groups, to ensure a future where no-one in the UK loses their life to meningitis.”
What can parents do now?
Parents who are concerned about meningitis B should familiarise themselves with the symptoms and seek advice from a doctor if they suspect meningitis. The NHS website lists the following as some of the symptoms which may present themselves in babies:
- have a high fever, with cold hands and feet
- vomit and refuse to feed
- feel agitated and not want to be picked up
- become drowsy, floppy and unresponsive
- grunt or breathe rapidly
- have an unusual high-pitched or moaning cry
- have pale, blotchy skin, and a red rash that doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it (see below)
- have a tense, bulging soft spot on their head (fontanelle)
- have a stiff neck and dislike bright lights
- have convulsions or seizures
Parents wishing to seek a vaccine for older children may be able to do so privately, but stocks are expected to be low until the summer, when GlaxoSmithKline hopes to have increased their stocks.
We published an article about the meningitis B vaccine when it was first announced, which features more information about meningitis and the vaccine. For further information about meningitis, please consult your GP or your pharmacist who will be able advise you.