GPs urged to step up meningitis vaccination programme

Too many young people are failing to get the meningitis vaccine they should be receiving from their GP, according to charity the Meningitis Research Foundation.

The charity has highlighted the issue by focusing on the case of Sharon Sandell from London, whose 18-year-old daughter Lauren died in October last year from meningococcal W meningitis.

The MenACWY vaccine was introduced in August 2015 to stop a rise in a new and particularly deadly strain of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia (MenW).

Since then, pupils who are in years nine to 12 should be offered the vaccine routinely through school. Uptake has been as high as 84% in some school cohorts.

However, said the charity, while older teenagers could get the free vaccine from their GP, data released last month showed that uptake among that group has been low. As of March this year, only 38.9% of school leavers in 2015 and 33% of school leavers in 2016 had taken up the vaccine.

Figures from Public Health England show that there were 210 cases of MenW in England from July 2015 to June 2016.

The charity said that last year’s supply of the vaccine became available in April, but five months later, official figures showed only around 17% of year 13 school leavers had got the vaccine from their GP.

There were also regional differences over vaccine uptake with Essex having the highest uptake at 37.9%, while London only had a 9.9% uptake.

GPs have been asked to contact eligible patients but the charity said it had received calls from young people who were unsure if they should get the vaccine because they had not been told.

Public Health England has this week reminded GPs to invite eligible young people in for their vaccination in the publication Vaccine Update.

Vinny Smith, chief executive of the charity, said: ‘Sadly we know there are too many families and individuals being affected by this MenW strain of meningitis. As with any type of meningitis and septicaemia, it needs to be diagnosed and treated urgently but with this strain the symptoms often do not present in the usual way.

‘We need all GPs to be playing their part in flagging patients that are eligible for the MenACWY vaccine and we have just launched an online eligibility checker and awareness campaign to make it easier for everyone to be sure who needs to get it.’

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘GPs are always on the alert for signs of meningitis and we are doing everything we can to increase awareness and take-up of the MenACWY immunisation programme.

‘However, there are different rules and responsibilities for vaccinating specific age groups, which has made it confusing for GPs and schools, as well as for our young patients and their parents.

‘The confusion over eligibility is undoubtedly a major factor in the low immunisation rate and this is very concerning.

‘We need a long-running and high-profile public awareness campaign to clarify who is, and who is not, eligible for the free NHS vaccine, and inform young people about the importance of being vaccinated against this devastating and, in the worst cases, life-threatening disease.’

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