Meningitis vaccinations 'blamed' for rise in deaths

 Independent, September 20, 2004,

The success of a vaccination campaign against meningitis is being
blamed for a sudden rise in the number of deaths.

Cases of meningitis and septicaemia have fallen from about 4,000 a
year in the late 1990s to 2,446 last year following the introduction
of a vaccine against meningitis C in November 1999. But in a bizarre
twist the number of deaths rose last year by 17 per cent from 317 to
370 and is not far below the level before the vaccine was introduced.

Specialists say one reason for the rise in deaths is the mistaken
belief that the vaccine protects against all forms of meningitis. The
vaccine is only effective against meningitis C, cases of which have
fallen by 90 per cent, but offers no protection against the equally
deadly meningitis B.

The Meningitis Research Foundation is to launch a campaign this week
to alert the public to the risks. A spokes-woman said: "We are
extremely concerned about the rise in deaths. With cases declining
this is the last thing we want to see. We don't know why deaths are
rising but anecdotal evidence suggests many people think that since
the introduction of the meningitis C vaccine the problem is solved."

The vaccine is given routinely to all babies in the first months of
life and has also been administered in catch-up exercises to older
children and young adults.

But the foundation says this has generated a false sense of security
among the public and led parents and individuals to ignore symptoms,
leading to delays in getting help.

"In a survey of students we found that half thought that, because they
had been vaccinated, they couldn't get meningitis. They thought they
were OK and didn't have to worry any more. Callers to our helpline
said the same thing. So many mums said they didn't think their child
could get the disease because they had been vaccinated."

Meningitis is dangerous because of the speed and ferocity with which
it strikes. It can strike at any age but mostly affects infants and
students in their late teens and urgent medical attention is essential
to save lives.

Throughout the 1990s the death rate remained at about 10 per cent of
cases. But in 2002 it rose to 12 per cent and last year to 15. "We
hoped the rise to 12 per cent in 2002 was a blip. But when we saw it
had gone up again last year, we were alarmed," the spokeswoman said.
The foundation is launching its campaign, called "Race against time",