What you need to know about the Meningitis B vaccine
The meningitis B vaccine offers protection against meningococcal group B bacteria, which are a common cause of meningitis in young children in the UK
The government added a new vaccine to the Childhood Immunisation Programme back in 2015 which protects against the B strain of Meningitis: one of the most dangerous strains of the disease.
What is Meningitis B and why vaccinate?
There are many forms of meningitis, some of which can be life threatening. All the letters used when talking about Meningitis can get confusing, but the bottom line is that any case of the illness needs diagnosing and treating as soon as possible.
Meningitis B is now the most common form of meningitis in the UK and is responsible for over 80% of all meningococcal diseases in young children and teenagers. Meningitis C used to be the worst offender, but ever since babies started being vaccinated against it in 1999, the number of cases has dropped drastically.
Men B is a bacterial infection which can cause swelling of the lining of the brain and spinal cord and can also lead to septicaemia (blood poisoning). It’s a disease that can develop quickly and can lead to death. Around 36% of cases result in a lifelong disability such as deafness, blindness, epilepsy or loss of limbs so it is important to know the signs and symptoms.
Anyone can develop Men B but it occurs most often in young children and older teenagers because it is passed on through extended close contact by coughing, sneezing and kissing. No one knows exactly why, but there are more cases in winter than in summer.
How and when will my child be given the vaccine?
The Men B vaccine is given at 2, 4 and 12 months. It is given in the form of an injection in the thigh muscle and will be done at the same appointment as other routine vaccinations already offered as part of the Childhood Immunisation Programme. All these vaccines are free.
Will there be any side effects?
You might notice some swelling, redness or a rash around the injection site and your baby could get irritable, lose their appetite a little and feel sore at the spot where the needle went in. These are the same kind of side effects that you would be looking out for after any immunisation appointment and should disappear within 48 hours.
The main side effect is that your baby is highly likely to get a fever. Doctors and pharmacists have actually been asked to change their regular ‘post vaccine advice’ for the 2 and 4 month appointments because over half of all babies get a fever when it’s given with all the other jabs on these dates. So, only for those 2 appointments, the advice is:
- Give your baby an age-appropriate dose of infant paracetamol as soon as you can after the jab – in other words you can do it right there in the surgery before you leave. So go prepared with some in your bag.
- Give a second age-appropriate dose after 4-6 hours (the fever usually peaks at 6 hours).
- As long as your baby appears fine in all other ways, give a third dose another 4-6 hours later. This is where the advice is different to all other times when you might be giving your baby infant paracetamol. It will also be different to what the label on the bottle says, but don’t worry as it is perfectly safe. Your GP should have a leaflet for you which contains all this information.
You can then keep giving paracetamol (following the appropriate dose and time lapse guidelines) for up to 48 hours after the jab, as long as your baby seems well in all other ways. If your baby still has a fever after 48 hours, you should then do what you normally do after no more than 2 doses, which is contact the doctor. This is not because paracetamol is harmful for your baby. It’s because it could be masking symptoms of something more serious, which only a doctor can rule out.
During that first 48 hours do what you normally do if your baby has a fever: try to make sure they don’t get too hot by limiting the amount of clothing and blankets you use and also give them lots of fluid. While it’s horrible to think that your child has a fever because of something you’ve allowed them to be given, remember that the fever is a sign the vaccine is beginning to work.
Why wasn’t the vaccine around before September 2015?
It is a fairly new vaccine and it was only passed by the European Medicines Agency in January 2013. After that the government had to decide if it was worth adding to the immunisation programme. Here’s why it did:
- Between 500 and 1,700 children and adults in England get Men B each year.
- Around half are children under 5
- Children aged between 3 and 6 months are at the highest risk (the risk peaks at 5 months)
- It’s thought to protect against about 88% of all strains of Men B
- Around 1 in 10 people will die after developing one of the many forms of meningococcal disease, meningitis or septicaemia, so preventing as many forms as possible is crucial.
Is it safe?
It’s only natural to want as much information as possible about a new drug, especially when you’re allowing it to be put into the body of the most precious thing in your life, so here are the facts you need to know:
The vaccine is called Bexsero® and it is possible to download all the findings from the trials and studies of the drug but it’s full of medical jargon that can be hard to wade through with a baby in your arms, so the key information available is:
- It went through 10 years of laboratory and volunteer trials
- There were no major or permanent side effects reported in trials with adults, teenagers or infants.
- Over 1 million doses have already been given in more than 19 countries with no major problems reported.
- In Canada 45,000 doses were recently given to children and young adults aged 2 months to 20 years and no concerns about safety were reported.
- There is no information about possible long term effects yet: doctors and pharmacists have been asked to report any unusual reactions (this happens with any new drug)
- There is no information about exactly how long immunity lasts yet, but all the advice the government has been giving to doctors is that it will cover children until they are past the key ‘at risk’ stage.
Can my baby catch Meningitis B from the vaccine?
The vaccine is ‘inactivated’ so it does not contain live organisms. This means it can’t cause the disease it is protecting against.
Is there a reason I shouldn’t get the vaccination for my child?
If your baby has a fever on the day of the appointment your GP might suggest re-scheduling so that they don’t feel any worse than they already do. If it’s just a mild cough or cold they can still have the jab. This is the case with most vaccination appointments.
If your baby was premature or has a specific medical condition they can still be given the vaccine but your GP has been sent guidance about exactly when and how to give it.