Meningitis B... What's All The Fuss About?

Did you know that there are over 3000 bacterial meningitis and septicaemia cases each year? 

Did you know it can kill within 24 hours - that 1 in 10 individuals affected will die and 1 in 5 survivors have long term complications (like brain damage and amputations)?

Did you know that currently the most common type is meningitis B?

 

What Is It?

Meningitis is a serious infection.  It's caused by germs called bacteria or viruses.  Bacterial meningitis is life-threatening and a medical emergency - it needs urgent treatment with antibiotics and possibly even intensive care.  

It's most common in those under 5 and young people from 15-19 years, but can affect anyone at any age. 

What we call ‘meningitis’ is actually a general description that has been simplified for publicity reasons.  In reality, it is made up of 2 different things:

True ‘meningitis’ is when the infection affects the brain and spinal cord.  Symptoms of this include:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Poor feeding
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Neck stiffness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Unusual behaviour
  • Irritability
  • Fits

The other component is ‘septicaemia’ (or blood poisoning) when the infection gets into the blood and can then travel around the body.  Symptoms of this can be similar and include:

  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Muscle pain
  • Poor feeding and vomiting
  • Cold hands and feet (in children)
  • Characteristic non-fading rash

You can have meningitis and/or septicaemia, but only septicaemia gives you the classic rash.  So remember: you can actually have meningitis without the rash!  That’s why it is important to look out for all the symptoms.

  

What Can We Do?

There are 3 ways that we can deal with this potentially devastating condition:

1)  Recognise 

There are lots of great public awareness campaigns, by organisations like Meningitis Now, on how to recognise signs of the condition and seek urgent help.

2)  Treat 

Lots of excellent work is being done in training doctors to diagnose the condition and start treatment promptly, particularly by the Meningitis Research Foundation.

3)  Prevent

There are lots of different infections that can cause meningitis and luckily we can vaccinate against some of them (e.g. MMR, HiB, pneumococcus, meningitis C).  These vaccines have resulted in a massive drop in cases of meningitis and septicaemia caused by these infections.

However, the commonest type in the UK is now meningitis B.  Why?  Because up until now we haven’t been able to create a vaccine for it, so it has taken over as the leading cause in this country.

 

So What Now?

Well, there is some good news!  After 20 years of hard work and using a revolutionary new technique, a meningitis B vaccine has been created.  This has the potential to prevent hundreds of cases of death and disability every year.

The vaccine was approved for use in January 2013.  However, currently the UK health authorities and government are not allowing it to be prescribed on the NHS.

Why?  Every vaccine has to be assessed in terms of effectiveness, safety and cost-effectiveness before it can be recommended on the NHS.  The meningitis B vaccine has so far failed this evaluation, despite research showing its safety and effectiveness, and the health authorities have provisionally decided against it.  However, what concerns many people is that this assessment was based on limited information, is known to be inaccurate and many professionals do not agree with it.

In fact, a similar situation was faced when the meningitis C vaccine was considered in 2000.  Yet, despite that it was still introduced and has driven down cases of this infection by 90%.

This means that currently the meningitis B vaccine is only available privately, but can be difficult to come by and is expensive.

 

What Next?

The authorities are reviewing their provisional decision right now, using new information and evidence, and the result is going to be announced soon.  In the meantime, a petition led by the charity Meningitis Now and signed by 36,000 people (including the public, patients and doctors) was delivered to Jeremy Hunt asking him to consider the plea of those affected and not to put a price on children’s lives and livelihoods.  

We can only hope that the right decision is made on the basis of the best information and assessment.  In the meantime, sadly hundreds of people’s lives continue to be devastated by this serious condition and we have to do everything we can to prevent that.

 

More Information

If you want more information on meningitis and the latest on the meningitis B vaccine, check out:

 

NHS Choices

Meningitis Now

Meningitis Research Foundation

 

Also, here’s a link to an ITV This Morning piece on this issue.