Doctors have raised the alarm over plans to stop giving toddlers a meningitis vaccine, claiming it would leave children vulnerable to the life-threatening infection.
All youngsters in the UK receive the jab, which protects against meningococcal group C (MenC) bacteria, around their first birthday. These bugs cause meningitis – a rare infection of the protective membranes around the brain and spine.
The condition, which strikes healthy children without warning, is difficult to distinguish from milder childhood illnesses in the early stages and can lead to death within 24 hours.
Bacterial meningitis can cause life-threatening blood poisoning called septicaemia and lead to serious injuries, including loss of limbs, deafness and brain damage.
Since meningitis vaccines were introduced in 1999, yearly cases have dropped from about 1,300 to just a handful
Dropping the vaccine for one-year-olds is expected to happen when stocks of Menitorix run out in 2025, but charity Meningitis Now says the change could ‘place lives at risk’
Last summer, drug firm GSK, which makes the jab named Menitorix, announced it would halt production in what was said to be ‘a commercial decision’.
In response, vaccine chiefs have said it will be dropped entirely from the child immunisation schedule.
At the same time, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the Government, is replacing another aspect of the combined injection which protects against Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib – a different meningitis-causing bacteria. It does not plan to replace the MenC element.
Their experts say that because teenagers are now given a meningitis jab called MenACWY, children are indirectly protected.
Since meningitis vaccines were introduced in 1999, yearly cases have dropped from about 1,300 to just a handful. This is a sign herd immunity has been reached – when levels of a bug in circulation fall to such low levels it becomes highly unlikely to catch it.
Dropping the vaccine for one-year-olds is expected to happen when stocks of Menitorix run out in 2025, but charity Meningitis Now says the change could ‘place lives at risk’. Along with the Meningitis Research Foundation, it is calling for an extra MenACWY jab for youngsters.
Rates of vaccinations among teenagers against meningitis dropped during the pandemic, and are not back to pre-Covid levels, their experts point out. Disease caused by meningococcal bacteria is unpredictable and increases with little warning says Claire Wright, of the Meningitis Research Foundation.
Consultant paediatrician Dr Nelly Ninis said that while she trusts the JCVI to make the right decision, young children could be left vulnerable – particularly when going abroad to parts of Africa and the Middle East, where MenC rates are higher.
Dr Ninis warns there can also be unpredictable outbreaks in any country. ‘There have been little hot spots all over Europe in the last few years,’ she says.
‘Children can pick up the bacteria in their throats and, while they may not be affected, they may bring it back with them and spread it to other people.
‘I think giving maximum protection to every child is the way forward. Spotting early meningitis disease is very difficult, and by the time it is spotted it can be too late.’
Parents may want to pay to vaccinate their children, she adds. A jab that protects against the four strains of meningococcal A, C, W and Y can be bought for £50 privately in the UK. Dr Simon Nadel, consultant in paediatric intensive care at the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, says surveilling cases of disease caused by Men C ‘is key’, so that swift action can be taken if numbers start to rise. He adds: ‘I share the charities’ concerns. Fortunately we are very good at monitoring it.’
A mother whose seven-week-old baby died from meningitis less than 24 hours after he became unwell expressed her unease at the plans. The night before he died, Myles King went to bed as a typically healthy baby. He woke at midnight unsettled and restless but had no temperature, says his mother Natalie, 40, a police officer who lives in Chobham, Surrey. She drove him to A&E at 6am when Myles started making a grunting sound. She says: ‘We were seen quickly and the doctor started antibiotics straight away. But a rash just spread across his little body.’ Myles was admitted to Southampton Children’s Hospital for specialist care, but his organs started to fail and he died that afternoon. His death, in 2015, was caused by MenB bacteria, which is known to be the most fatal form, not MenC.
Natalie, who lives with her husband Mark, 49, and their children Tristan, nine, and Elliott, five, adds: ‘Myles was a happy, healthy baby and it was shocking how quickly he become unwell.’