A major new campaign is urging people across the UK to ensure that they have taken up the latest vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella.
The MMR vaccine is seen as being a major contributor to treating these conditions, yet Public Health England is concerned about figures related to these illnesses.
There has been an increase in the number of confirmed cases of measles, mumps and rubella, and the major health body is encouraging the general public to be more aware of the symptoms of the condition.
The warning comes after 20 cases of measles were reported with 12 being in London and the east of England, three cases in Cambridge, two in Essex and three in Hertfordshire.
By comparison, 91 cases were recorded in the entirety of last year in England.
However, despite concerns about the number of measles cases detected, it is important to understand that demographics are critical in this issue.
Diagnoses are generally found among adolescents and young adults who have not been vaccinated, with many of them having been admitted to hospitals across the country.
Commenting on the issue, Dr Kevin Brown, Deputy Director of the Virus Reference Department at Public Health England, suggested that vaccination is the best way to tackle what can otherwise be a serious illnesses.
“While measles is now relatively uncommon in England thanks to the MMR vaccine, those who are unvaccinated, or not fully vaccinated, remain susceptible to the disease. The cases we have seen recently have been confirmed mainly in adolescents and young adults. It’s important to be aware that it’s never too late to have the vaccine, so if you’ve not received two doses of the vaccine in the past – or you’re unsure – speak to your GP. There’s no harm in receiving an additional dose where there is any uncertainty.”
Another city which has faced a major measles epidemic is Swansea, with 1,219 cases having been reported in the Welsh locale in 2013.
Yet the aforementioned Brown was sceptical that figures would escalate to that level. “I don’t think it will be of the numbers we had for the Swansea outbreak, which was predominantly affecting school-age children.”
Nonetheless, the doctor does believe that there is likely to be an elevated risk of measles in 2016, and that people particularly at risk should take precautions.
”But there is still the potential for us to have an increasing number of cases, especially in young adults and they are the ones that tend to be hospitalised and don’t do as well,” Brown asserted.
Measles is of course characterised by cold-like symptoms, sore red eyes, high temperature of about 40C or a red-brown blotchy rash in its initial stages.
MPs have been told that a vaccine for the meningitis B vaccine should be made available to all UK children up to the age of 11.
Parents of children affected by meningitis B claim that the cost of treating survivors left with life-long disabilities more than outweighs the £75 vaccine price.
At present, the jab is only routinely given only to infants in the UK.
And the advisory committee for the government claims that offering it to a wider age group would not be cost effective for the NHS.
Yet a petition set up by Gateshead father-of-two Lee Booth following one of his daughters being refused the vaccine has attracted 850,000 signatures.
Booth told the Petitions Committee meeting: “What price do you put on a child’s life at the end of the day? We have got a vaccine out there. We should be using it.”
MPs on the Commons health and petitions committees will listen to evidence from interested parents, charities and government advisers, as the government assesses its policy.
By May 2017, all UK children under the age of two years will have been offered the vaccine, but campaigners now want this policy considerably extended.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises UK health departments, considered vaccinating older age groups, but concluded it would not be cost-effective.
Dr Helen Bedford, senior lecturer in Children’s Health at University College London, stated that the rationale behind refusing children of a certain age access to the vaccine was ultimately quite sound, and that it is difficult to make a satisfactory decision that is appropriate for all parties.
“It’s a hard decision, nobody wants to deny a child protection against this disease, which is devastating. We have got a limited pot of money in the NHS, you have to make decisions about where you are going to spend that money. Clearly, if you have a group that are so much more at risk than another group, that’s where you are going to get the best value for that money.”
Yet several groups have questioned the assumptions of the government outside of those petitioning for a change in policy.
In particular, the charity Meningitis Now suggests that there is sufficient evidence to support immunising children under the age of five with the meningitis B vaccine.
A Department of Health spokesman nonetheless defended the position of the government, while also acknowledging that meningitis remained a sensitive subject.
“We understand people’s concerns and all vaccination programmes are kept under constant review but we have to be guided by the very best scientific advice and we will continue to protect the children who are most at risk.”
The issue will always remain contentious as meningitis B is fatal in approximately 10% of cases, while 25% of survivors suffer long-term health difficulties.
The meningitis B vaccine has prompted the most successful online petition in British parliamentary history.
Over 640,000 people have signed the petition calling for the government to provide a vaccine for all children up to the age of 11.
The individual who founded the petition, Lee Booth, now believes that it will be extremely difficult for the government to ignore popular sentiment on the subject.
Booth was prompted to launch the petition after being told by the NHS that one of his own daughters was too old to receive the vaccine via the NHS.
The campaign was not particularly significant for quite some time, and indeed initially only attracted around 900 signatures.
However, the death of two-year-old Faye Burdett, from Maidstone, Kent, ignited public interest in the matter, particularly after pictures of Faye lying in a hospital bed shortly before her death were widely publicised.
The magnitude of the debate on the subject seems to make it an inevitability that a debate in parliament will be held on the subject.
Booth, who lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, has been extremely moved by the success of the campaign.
“I’m speechless and overwhelmed by the response. It has been phenomenal. I have spent quite a lot of time responding to tweets and Facebook messages. The number of signatures has just skyrocketed. The government cannot now ignore the biggest petition ever.”
It seems in this context that public awareness of meningitis has increased considerably, and this must be seen as at least one positive trend that has emerged from an otherwise upsetting situation.
Although Western conditions tend to result in considerably less meningitis deaths than in more impoverished parts of the world, it can nevertheless be a deadly condition for those who contract it.
In the last 20 years (1991–2010) close to one-million suspected meningitis cases were reported among countries of the African Meningitis Belt, including approximately 100,000 deaths.
Awareness of meningitis in the UK was raised further following the public pronouncements of Matt Dawson.
The former England rugby union captain Dawson’s son Sam had meningitis C, although he has now recovered from the condition.
Campaigners wished for the scope of the existing vaccine to be expanded.
The vaccine is already available for babies aged two months, with a second dose made available at four months, with a booster shot then applied at one year.
But parents who wish to have older children vaccinated must pay privately.
This has been partly precipitated by a shortage of worldwide stocks of the virus, although GlaxoSmithKline intends to significantly increase this quotient by the summer.
A major new Ebola vaccine has been subjected to a significant commercial deal.
The Gavi alliance for vaccines and immunisation has signed a $5m (£3.5m) deal to buy a vaccine being developed by Merck to protect against Ebola.
It is hoped by Gavi that this new arrangement will enable the major US pharmaceutical company to eventually achieve licensing and pre-qualification from the World Health Organisation.
This has yet to be approved at the time of writing.
Four Ebola strains have been identified which the vaccine will target, and it is believed that the vaccine could eliminate the problem in Africa.
In addition, Gavi will create a stockpile for possible Ebola outbreaks in the future, with the company commenting prominently on the issue at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Ebola swept through three countries in west Africa last year, killing more than 11,300 people and infecting more than 28,600.
Speaking on the issue, Gavi’s chief executive, Seth Berkley, suggested that the recent Ebola outbreak had been extremely important in opening the eyes of people in the Western world.
“The suffering caused by the Ebola crisis was a wake-up call to many in the global health community. New threats require smart solutions and our innovative financing agreement with Merck will ensure that we are ahead of the curve for future Ebola outbreaks.”
The deal was agreed on the understanding that the vaccine will be submitted for a licence by the end of next year.
Gavi also believes that the advanced commitments made will enable firms developing drugs to be more optimistic about distributing them in absentia of an immediate market.
“It’s critical that we give confidence to companies that when they make this type of effort, there is somebody to buy it,” Berkley asserted.
Clinical trials will apparently begin in May, and 300,000 doses of the vaccine will be tested at this time.
Emergency usage of the vaccine will also be possible, in the event of any further Ebola outbreaks.
The number of doses being trialled would suggest that an extremely important impact can be had on future epidemics.
Previous outbreaks of the Ebola disease have infected greatly smaller numbers, usually fewer than 1,000 people.
Jeremy Farrar, director of Britain’s Wellcome Trust, which co-funded clinical trials of the Merck vaccine, said the “remarkable results” from those trials, as well as promising progress of other vaccine candidates, were “among the few positive outcomes to emerge from the epidemic”.
Yet despite the serious nature of the Ebola outbreak, it does seem that the problem is now under control in Africa.
It was announced by the World Health Organisation just last week that there had been no new Ebola cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone for six weeks.
These nations had been the worst affected by the previous epidemic.
Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate that the number of excess deaths in England and Wales increased significantly from last year.
Indeed, the estimated 43,900 such deaths represented the highest number recorded since 1999.
The report produced by the ONS indicates that most of the deaths involve people aged over 75.
One of the primary contributors to these figures was the flu virus.
It was regrettable with regard to this issue that the influenza vaccine produced in 2015 was significantly less effective than those manufactured during previous years.
Another notable aspect of the figures is the fact that there were more deaths in women than men.
Commenting on the provisional statistics, Claudia Wells, at the ONS, acknowledged the importance of the flu virus in the lofty number of deaths: “A major cause behind the rise was the flu virus, with estimates showing that the flu vaccine was not as effective this winter compared to previous years. While the cold temperature is a factor, most of last winter was warmer than average.”
The report indicated that respiratory illnesses were the cause of death in around 40 per cent of all winter cases recorded.
In particular, experts suggest that the strain of flu which circulated during 2014 had a significant impact on older people.
This resulted in a large number of outbreaks in care homes, which led to a larger than usual number of admissions to intensive care.
It was noted some months back that the 34 per cent effectiveness of the flu vaccine for 2015 was likely to lead to an excess number of deaths over the winter period.
And Caroline Abrahams of Age UK emphasised that “behind the figures are many individual tragedies of older people dying needlessly before their time.”
However, it is notable that the large number of winter deaths was not unique to that United Kingdom.
The Department of Health suggested that as many as 15 other nations in Europe also suffered their largest number of winter deaths in the 21st century.
Commenting on the issue, the Department suggested that the cold weather plan that they had put in place had significantly reduced the number of cold-related illnesses and deaths.
Speaking on behalf of the Department of Health, a spokesperson stated: “Excess winter deaths can be due to a number of causes including cold snaps, flu and other respiratory infections. Flu is serious, causing severe illness and deaths in winter. It is vital that older people, pregnant women and those with a health condition get their flu jab this winter.
A new initiative intended to ensure that flu bugs are tackled effectively this winter has been launched by Public Health England and NHS England.
This drive to improve public health will begin with a nationwide flu vaccination program for children.
In the coming year, this is intended to address 3 million young people aged between two and six years of age, with the program extended to children in the first and second year of school.
The NHS has dubbed the campaign “Stay Well this Winter”.
For the first time in the history of healthcare in England, it will be possible for all of the youngest primary school children to receive the free nasal spray vaccine.
This will make the latest attempts to address influenza the largest of this kind ever to be carried out in England, involving children in 17,000 schools across the country.
In common with previous years, the adult flu vaccine will also be offered for free to groups of people in particular risk of infection and complication from flu.
These groups are pregnant women, members of society aged over 65, those with long-term health conditions, and those responsible for the daily care of another person(s).
As well as protecting the public against flu, the NHS Stay Well This Winter campaign will urge people over 65 or those with long-term health conditions, such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease or respiratory illness, to prepare for winter with advice on how to ward off common illnesses.
The NHS is urging people of all ages to get a flu jab if they are eligible. But the health authorities have also issued several other pieces of advice to follow this winter.
First on the list is ensuring that people keep warm at all times is important. Heating homes to at least 18°C should be considered essential.
The NHS also recommends that if people begin to feel unwell then help should be sought from pharmacists immediately.
Finally, the health service is encouraging people to ensure that they are well stocked up with prescription medicines over the Christmas period, and also to keep a look out for other people who may require assistance.
Commenting on this extensive new campaign, Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, was keen to emphasise its importance.
“Let me be crystal clear – flu kills. For many people it is an unpleasant illness but for the most vulnerable in society – small children, the elderly, those with long-term health problems and for pregnant women – it is extremely dangerous and can be lethal.
“Getting the vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from catching flu and I would urge everyone who is offered the vaccine free on the NHS to get vaccinated,” Davies asserted.
Flu generally leads to around 10,000 deaths per week over the winter period in the UK.
The last time the flu season led to an epidemic was 1999/2000, when an average of 16,367 deaths a week occurred.
Over 100 MPs and peers attended Westminster Flu Day today; a flu vaccine clinic held in the House of Commons with the intention of encouraging constituents to acquire this season’s flu vaccination.
This form of medication is currently part of the government’s recommendations on tackling the virus.
Parliamentarians who are not be eligible for a free seasonal flu vaccination on the NHS will make a £10 donation to the Carers Trust; the equivalent cost of a private vaccination.
Although there is still a general feeling among the public that influenza is a mild illness, the reality is that flu continues to place a considerable burden on NHS resources on an annual basis.
The timing, extent and severity of influenza seasons are unpredictable and intermittent epidemics can cause significant illness and death.
In an attempt to tackle flu, the World Health Organisation has set a target of 75 percent for the uptake of flu vaccinations in those aged over 65.
However, the current acceptance rate in England is slightly below this figure, with 72.8 percent having got the flu vaccine last year.
The Department of Health particularly wants to improve the uptake rates for those people under 65 years of age with clinical conditions which put them more at risk from the effects of flu.
Among these individuals, the uptake rate currently stands at 50.3 percent.
In addition, certain particularly vulnerable groups are also a priority of such awareness campaigns.
Only 44.1 percent of pregnant women acquired the flu vaccination last year, and the figure was only slightly higher for healthcare workers at 54.9 percent.
In addition, 38.5 percent of two year olds, 41.3 percent of three year olds and 32.9 percent of four year olds were vaccinated in England in 2014/15.
Jane Ellison MP, Public Health Minister, commented: “This is a great opportunity for MPs and Peers to find out who in their communities is eligible for the vaccination and encourage greater take up. MPs can play a really helpful role in raising awareness in their constituencies.”
Chris Skidmore MP, hosting the event in Parliament, was keen to emphasise the worth of this initiative: “MPs really value the opportunity to learn about the importance of flu vaccination at Westminster Flu Day. I would urge everyone who is entitled to a free flu vaccination to go and get vaccinated this winter.”
Virginia Acha, ABPI Executive Director of Research, Medical and Innovation, added: “Speaking for the ABPI and all of our members, we are really pleased to support Westminster Flu Day and we hope that this campaign helps to advance awareness and uptake of the flu vaccines to deliver better health for our society, particular for those individuals most at risk.”
Westminster Flu Day is an established event in the Parliamentary calendar. It is sponsored by the ABPI Vaccine Group in partnership with the Royal College of GPs and Carers Trust and with the support of the Department of Health and Public Health England.
The Westminster Flu Day concept is supported by the following companies:
• Novartis Influenza Vaccines
According to a report released by Public Health England, the flu jab released last winter was effective in 34 per cent of cases.
This represented a significant improvement on the early trend in the season, but can overall be considered a sub-par result.
At one stage, it was observed that the vaccine was protecting around three out of every 100 immunised people developing symptoms.
However, according to the report, a shift in the dominant circulating strains of flu saw the efficacy of the vaccination improve significantly.
Nonetheless, considering that the flu jab was still ineffective in two out of three cases, there will still be question marks regarding the efficacy of this treatment.
Many campaigners have called into question the need for vaccination against influenza, considering that it is a relatively benign virus in healthy people.
And these latest figures certainly won’t dampen down any such criticism.
Commenting on the figures, Professor Paul Cosford, from Public Health England, conceded that its effectiveness had been “slightly lower” than usual.
In defence of the flu jab, it should be noted that the virus mutates very rapidly, ensuring that manufacturing and distributing an effective vaccine is extremely challenging.
This also explains the reasoning behind a new jab being released every year.
Considering the fact that vaccinations can have side-effects, the relatively disappointing figures could have a negative impact on uptake of the virus in 2015.
Officials are apparently concerned that public opinion could be swayed against the flu jab by the somewhat poor performance of the vaccination in 2014.
Nonetheless, Professor Cosford underlined his particular belief that vaccination remained an effective measure against the flu.
“Whilst it’s not possible to fully predict the strains that will circulate in any given season, flu vaccination remains the best protection we have against an unpredictable virus which can cause severe illness and deaths each year among at-risk groups. These include older people, pregnant women and those with a health condition, even one that is well-managed,” Cosford asserted.
According to the World Health Organisation, flu vaccines can typically be expected to work in roughly 50 per cent of cases.
But the winter past featured one particular strain of flu that mutated so dramatically that the vaccine proffered presented much lower levels of protection than would usually be expected.
An EU report in 2014 suggested that pensioners in Britain are more likely to die of flu or pneumonia than anywhere else in Europe, and that 80 Britons die from the diseases every day.
A new vaccination programme has been announced, with the intention of addressing meningitis B. The new scheme is the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
Under the new scheme, meningitis B vaccines will be administered to babies at two, four and 12 months of age, as part of an overarching programme of immunisation.
Young infants are particularly vulnerable to meningitis B, which is a fatal illness in approximately 10 per cent of cases.
Campaigners who are advocating the new immunisation programme claim that it will prevent up to 4,000 cases of meningitis B by 2025.
However, there is still a need for parents to be aware of meningitis B symptoms in order to recognise and catch the condition before it escalates.
Signs of infection include a fever with cold hands and feet, agitation, confusion, vomiting and headaches.
Although bickering over expenditure has delayed the programme from being implemented, the publicly funded initiative is a unique one.
Eventually, the manufacturer of the vaccine, the multinational pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, and the government reached an agreement acceptable to both parties.
It is now hoped that other countries will follow suit and create similar programmes in the foreseeable future.
Despite the hundreds of strains of meningococcal group B bacteria that exist, trials indicate that the vaccine could have a significant impact on the virus.
Results from clinical trials suggest that the vaccine will be effective against 88 per cent of strains of the bacteria, ensuring that thousands of deaths will ultimately be prevented.
Responding to the announcement of this programme, Dr Mary Ramsay, the head of immunisation at Public Health England, said: “This vaccine will help to save lives and prevent permanent disability.”
And Christopher Head, from the Meningitis Research Foundation, echoed the claims of campaigners that the “vaccine could potentially prevent up to 4,000 cases of meningococcal disease in children younger than five years in the UK.”
But Head was also keen to emphasise that “despite this welcome progress we must remind everyone there are still some forms of the disease which are not covered by vaccines so it is vital that people are still aware of the symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia.”
Despite this apparently positive news, campaigners have also pointed out that other forms of meningitis have not received similar attention, and that there is still room for improvement in the government and health service’s response to the troublesome bacteria.
Researchers at University Medical Center (UMC) of Utrecht have discovered a vaccine that lowers incidents of pneumonia among elderly people.
The research, carried out among 85,000 Dutch subjects over the age of 65, the research reveals that vaccination halves the number of hospitalisations.
The ‘Community-acquired pneumonia immunization Trial in Adults’ – CAPiTA – studied the effect of vaccine PCV13, which targets 13 strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae, the main cause of pneumonia.
“It has now been demonstrated for the first time that a vaccine can prevent pneumonia in elderly people”, said Marc Bonten, professor of Molecular Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at the UMC Utrecht and research leader of the CAPiTA study.
“The vaccine offers long-term protection: its effectiveness did not decrease in the four years of the study. If all people over the age of 65 were to be given PCV13, this would result in several hundred fewer hospitalizations in the Netherlands.”
UMC Utrecht carried out the research study in collaboration with Pfizer.