The Health Secretary is under mounting pressure to approve funding on the NHS for a vaccine against Meningitis B. Meningitis B is the most common strain of bacterial meningitis in the UK and its effects can be devastating. It kills more children under five than any other infection. Once contracted, the infection spreads rapidly and is fatal in one in ten cases. Those who survive can be left with debilitating lifelong injuries, including loss of limbs and permanent brain damage. It usually affects those under the age of 25 and is a diagnosis that any parent dreads.
Public health campaigns in recent years and periodic outbreaks of the infection, particularly at universities, have raised awareness of the warning signs and risks of meningeal infections. The number of cases overall has fallen steadily but there were still over 1,000 new cases in 2011.
At the beginning of 2013, the European Medicines Agency licensed a new vaccine, 'Bexsero', against Meningitis B. It is estimated the vaccine could protect against around 88% of new meningitis cases.
In the UK, for a drug to be made available on the NHS, the Department of Health must first authorise it. Where vaccines are concerned, the Department of Health is legally obliged to accept the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). The JCVI considered Bexsero last year but concluded that the vaccine was not cost-effective enough to justify authorising it for NHS use.
As a result, the vaccine is currently available only to those who can afford to pay for it privately. Unsurprisingly, take-up has therefore been greatest in the South East of England but research suggests those in lower socio-economic groups are at higher risk.
There have been calls for the JCVI to reconsider its position and the JCVI is meeting today and tomorrow (11 and 12 February 2014) to discuss Bexsero again. Ahead of the meeting, hundreds of clinicians and researchers have written to the Health Secretary to urge that the vaccine should be approved for use on the NHS, arguing that many of the factors relevant to an assessment of the value of the vaccine were underestimated in the JCVI's previous decision.
Penningtons Manches LLP joins the call for this decision to be reviewed. Andrew Clayton, associate in the clinical negligence team, explains: "While there has been much public attention on the early signs of meningococcal diseases, we still receive many enquiries where the diagnosis has been delayed or missed, usually from parents concerned at the care their children have received. Even where the disease is not fatal, nothing can compensate for the life-changing effects it has on the child and their entire family. Making available the vaccine on the NHS would not only deliver reassurance and peace of mind but also avoid the hidden economic costs of the care that survivors need and the impact on the labour market."