Petition calling for expansion of MenB immunisation to be debated in Parliament

Medical treatment for meningitis

An online petition calling for the NHS to vaccinate all children against the deadly B strain of meningitis has attracted 686,000 supporters to date – the largest ever number of signatures for an online petition in the UK.

It follows a number of tragic cases of meningitis that have gained widespread attention in the media and on social networking sites, which has helped to raise awareness of the disease and its symptoms, as well as support for an expansion of the NHS immunisation programme to include older children.

Petitions that reach 100,000 signatures should be subject to a debate in Parliament, however, the government is yet to respond with confirmation or a date for debate.

The vaccine, Bexsero, was introduced to the routine immunisation programme for babies at 2, 4 and 12 months in autumn 2015 but campaigners are arguing that a catch-up programme should now be rolled out to provide protection to all children aged up to 11.

Meningococcal-causing bacteria, or Neisseria meningitidis and Streptococcus pneumoniae, are commonly found at the back of the nose and throat of around 10% of adults. In many people, the bacteria do not cause illness but if introduced to others via close contact it can lead to the serious and potentially fatal disease meningitis, an infection of the protective membranes or meninges surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

If not diagnosed and treated as a matter of urgency meningitis can very quickly lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning) and, tragically, death. Survivors can be left to live with severe disabilities resulting from limb amputation and brain, nerve and organ damage.

According to a report published by Public Health England, group B meningitis accounts for around 80% of laboratory-confirmed cases of meningococcal septicaemia, however, until relatively recently, a vaccine has proved elusive.

Dr Helen Bedford, Senior Lecturer in Children’s Health, Institute of Child Health at University College London, says: “There is no question that MenB disease, which can present as meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain) and/or septicaemia is a devastating disease and rightly feared by parents and health professionals alike, so we are lucky that there is a safe and effective vaccine to offer infants. However, decisions about which age group is offered any vaccine are based on the best scientific evidence about which age group will benefit most, and this includes issues of cost. For MenB disease an additional factor is that there has been a reduction in the number of cases in recent years, without any vaccination programme. The age vaccines are offered differs for different causes of meningitis.”

“Ongoing research”

Professor Nigel Klein, Professor of Infection and Immunity, Great Ormond St Hospital and UCL, and Scientific Advisory Panel member of the Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF), says: “It has been fantastic how research funded by charities such as MRF has improved the way we manage children with meningitis and septicaemia. This includes helping parents to recognise this condition and seeking medical help as well as encouraging the introduction of effective vaccines to prevent all forms of this disease.  We are delighted that the new MenB vaccine has now been introduced and we all hope will be successful. However as yet we really don’t know how effective it will be and if there are going to be any problems and this is a major area of ongoing research supported by the MRF. If successful, we would strongly recommend extending the vaccine programme to cover all vulnerable people.”

Syringe Vaccination

What are the symptoms of meningitis?

Signs of meningitis in babies and young children:

  • High fever, although fever is often absent in babies aged under three months
  • Pale, blotchy skin
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Vomiting and refusing feeds
  • Diarrhoea
  • Agitation
  • Drowsiness and being floppy and unresponsive
  • Bulging fontanelle or soft spot on the top of the head
  • Rapid breathing or grunting
  • Unusual high-pitched or moaning cry
  • Arching back
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Later signs include a rash that does not fade when pressed or examined under a glass but experts stress that parents should not wait for a rash to appear before seeking medical assistance.

Not all children will display all of the above symptoms, which can appear in any order, and parents are urged to trust their instincts and to seek urgent medical attention urgently, as soon as they feel something is wrong.

Signs of meningitis in older children, adolescents and adults:

  • Fever
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion and irritability
  • Drowsiness, difficult to wake
  • Severe muscle aches and pains
  • Pale, blotchy skin
  • Severe headache
  • Neck stiffness, or difficulty placing the chin to the chest
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • A rash that does not fade under glass - the glass test.

Again, symptoms can appear in any order and not all people with meningitis will display all of the symptoms.

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