The British government has rushed through a new vaccine for meningitis C and plans to offer it to every child and college student. There's not much we will know about side effects until it's too late.
On November 1 of last year, Liam Donaldson, the Department of Health's chief medical officer, announced the launching of a mass vaccination campaign against the group C strain of meningococcal meningitis. "By the end of nextyear," Donaldson confidently announced, "we hope to have confined this particular strain of meningitis largely to the history books."
Unusually for vaccine programmes in this country, which ordinarily copycats products and vaccine programmes formulated in other countries chiefly America this vaccine is true, blue British. Not only is the vaccine born and bred in Britain, but this is the only country to have launched a mass vaccination campaign against meningitis to date.
So confident were the powers that be about initial studies of the new, improved vaccine that they pushed forward the intended launch date by a year. At a time when the National Health Service was more strapped than ever for cash, Donaldson and Dr David Salisbury, the DoH's principle medical officer, managed to garner £10 million to launch an ambitious scheme which would innoculate all of the nation's 14 million school children within a year.
The plan was to vaccinate the entire pool of children in stages, beginning with those most at risk teenagers aged 15 to 17, then babies under a year, who would receive the jab at the same time they were given the standard first collection of shots. Last month, supplies permitting, the government was to move on to children aged one to five, who would receive it with their MMR booster jabs. As yet more supplies became available, the rest of the population of children would be offered the jab, with the plan to reach the rest of Britain's children by the summer.
Although the new vaccine wasn't to be ready until November, the government paved the way for publicity about it in August by launching a vaccine drive for university students, who would receive the old A and C combined polysaccharide vaccine (see box, p 1). Although the old vaccine is considered less effective and shorter lasting than the new one, the idea, said a DoH spokesperson, was that at least the vaccine would see the nation's 480,000 freshmen students through their three year university tenure.
But behind the smiles at the DoH and all the self congratulatory back patting lies a rash decision and all the makings of a scandal not dissimilar to that of the measles campaign of 1994. At that time, all the nation's school children were pressed into receiving a booster measles jab, supposedly to ward off a predicted measles epidemic. The epidemic never arrived, but at least several hundred families are currently suing vaccine manufacturers over apparent brain damage, paralysis and even death suffered by their children allegedly due to the measles booster.
With the new meningitis vaccine, the press has whipped up a fury over the limited supplies of the old vaccine, which were inadequate to meet the demands of the university students. In focusing on the shortage, journalists have missed the real scandal here, which has to do with expediency and, inevitably, politics. In the wholly laudable desire to staunch the increasing number of meningitis cases on the part of all involved, an alliance with no checks and balances has been forged between a government wishing to be regarded as heroic and a private company, with its need to turn a profit. In the process, our entire population of children are being exploited as a giant, convenient pool of guinea pigs.