You would be hard pressed to find a person that didn’t see the benefit of supporting and encouraging the development of new vaccines and promising treatments for preventing and managing illnesses – from the common cold to life threatening diseases. Unfortunately, it is often the case that we are only compelled to learn more about the availability of drugs and the process of introducing them as options on the NHS when we are faced with illness ourselves, directly or through friends and loved ones. However, as an MP with an interest in health issues and a former member of the Health Committee, I get to meet many patient groups and most recently I learned about a vaccine that has been developed against meningitis B and decided to support the campaign to have it introduced in the UK.
The disease – an inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord – is complex, and can be either viral or bacterial. Some bacterial strains have been addressed; for example, a vaccine exists for the meningitis C strain, which was added to the routine immunisation programme in 1999. Meningitis B has been a tougher nut to crack; developing the meningitis B vaccine took over 20 years and nearly a billion pounds but it has now finally been deemed safe for use by the EU.
An average of 1870 people is affected by meningitis B each year, of which one in 10 will die (the disease kills more children under the age of five than any other infectious disease in the UK, and over 50% of all cases occur in this vulnerable age group). Of those who survive a meningitis B infection, one in four is left with life altering after-effects such as brain damage or limb loss, according to the Meningitis Trust.
The body that advises government on the introduction of new vaccines – the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) is concerned about the cost effectiveness of the vaccine which itself is a concern. Our National Health Service is unique in the world; it places responsibility on government to make difficult decisions. I would find it hard however to justify to my constituents, to parents and grandparents across the country that despite the UK’s historical leadership in childhood immunisation we have decided not enough people suffer from this particular strand of such a devastating disease to deem the cost worthy.
I fear it would also act as a disincentive for future investment in research and development by drug companies. As the respected medical journal The Lancet notes in a recent editorial, “Difficult public health decisions are heightened by challenging economic conditions. However, with child mortality rates among the highest in Europe, many parents will reasonably ask whether the UK can afford not to lead the world, as it did with meningitis C vaccinations in 1999, and take this opportunity to subdue a devastating but beatable disease.”
The JCVI will make its final decision soon and I hope that good news will be delivered to parents across the country and to families and individuals that have been affected by the disease that are campaigning in the hope that others don’t have to face the devastation and continuing difficulties that they have faced.