THE NEW government programme to vaccinate babies against the deadly B strain of meningitis should be rolled out to include all young people, according to a specialist in infectious and tropical diseases.
Dr Ravi Gowda, who lives in Warwick and is consultant in infectious diseases at University Hospital Coventry, said students were particularly at risk because of large numbers of people in close contact, from sharing cups to kissing, as were soldiers in army barracks.
Dr Gowda, who is also director Travel Klinix, a travel health care clinic and designated yellow fever vaccination centre in Coventry, told The Observer: “It’s a devastating disease, and we are losing young lives to something that is completely preventable. I think the vaccination should be given to everyone from babies to 20-year-olds – they are all at risk.
“A pupil at Rugby School died from meningitis in 2009, while more recently a soldier in a UK military camp lost his fingers and toes after contracting the B strain.”
In what is the first such national and publicly-funded programme in the world, the meningitis B jab is being offered on the NHS for infants aged two months, followed by a second dose at four months and a booster at 12 months. The programme also included a temporary catch-up programme for babies who were due their three- and four-month vaccinations.
“The jab will protect against infection by meningococcal group B bacteria, which can cause meningitis and blood poisoning,” added Dr Gowda. “While it can affect people of any age, it is most common in babies and children under five – so why limit it to babies?
“I genuinely think that all young people up to 20 years of age should be vaccinated. My children were not eligible for B because of their age but I vaccinated them anyway.”
Although Dr Gowda welcomes the news another meningitis vaccine – ACWY – was being offered to 17 and 18-year-olds and to students starting university this year, he believes the age range was still too restricted.
He added: “The A, W and Y strains of meningitis used to be mainly found abroad but are now more common in the UK because of increased worldwide travel and a more diverse student population.
“Some forms of the disease are not covered by the vaccines so it’s vital people are still aware of the symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia.”
These develop rapidly and in older children and adults, usually include a headache, neck stiffness, nausea and high fever, with or without the tell-tale rash which doesn’t fade when a glass is rolled over it.
In babies, other signs may include refusing to eat, agitation, drowsiness, being floppy or unresponsive, as well as grunting or breathing rapidly or making unusually high-pitched cries or groans.