The brain disease meningitis C has been virtually eradicated from the UK following a national vaccination campaign, according to new Department of Health statistics. It is estimated that 500 cases of Meningitis C and septicemia have been prevented - and 50 deaths have been avoided.
Public health minister Yvette Cooper said: "The government was right to bring in this vaccine as rapidly as possible and vaccinate so many children, once it was shown that the vaccine was safe and effective. Already an estimated 50 lives have been saved this year because the NHS acted so quickly. The results so far are a huge tribute to school nurses, GPs and primary care staff across the country."
The £20m vaccination program began in November 1999. In 2000, there was a 90 per cent reduction in cases in 15 to 17 year olds, and an 82 per cent reduction in babies under one year old. These groups are the most vulnerable to the disease and were the first to be targeted with the vaccine.
According to Dr George Kassionos of the Royal College of General Practitioners the figures are a "miracle", said. They represent the biggest reduction in cases and deaths from a potentially deadly illness since the polio vaccine was introduced in the 1950s.
"To achieve these results in only one year will be the envy of the world," he told The Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Meningitis C kills one in ten people infected. An estimated 500 cases have been prevented, and 50 lives saved by the vaccination program.
In 2000 there were 60 cases, compared with 238 in 1999. But there have been major outbreaks of the disease in previous years. In 1998, 1530 people were infected with meningitis C.
Final figures for last year are expected to show that there were five cases among 15 to 17-year olds, compared with 50 in the previous year. In young babies, there were six cases last year, compared with 32 in 1999.
There are two main reasons for the campaign's success, says the Department of Health. First, doctors co-ordinating the program had access to detailed computerized data identifying all individuals that needed to be vaccinated, and that had received the vaccine. Access to this kind of data was unprecedented, says the DoH.
Secondly, the DoH thinks widespread media reports of deaths of schoolchildren from the illness spurred parents into ensuring their children were vaccinated.
The British government funded development of the meningitis C vaccine. Britain was the first country to implement a nation-wide vaccination program. But Spain and Ireland are now following suit, says a Department of Health spokesman.
Some 18 million meningitis C vaccinations have now been administered in the UK. Babies under one year and older teenagers were the first to be targeted. The population up to the age of 18 has now been covered. In the future, only babies will need to be vaccinated, says the DoH.
Meningitis causes swelling of the membrane around the brain and Meningitis C was responsible for 40 per cent of all deaths from the illness. Meningitis B is a bigger killer, accounting for the other 60 per cent, but no vaccine is yet available.
Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson says: "This is a wonderful achievement and has dealt a hammer blow to Meningitis C." But, he warns: "Parents must not be complacent. The other main form of meningococcal disease, Group B, is still common and is a killer."
Phil Cohen of the DoH says: "If we had a vaccine for Meningitis B, we'd probably be looking at another blanket vaccination program."