05 March 2014
It's the hard-to-diagnose killer infection that terrifies parents around the country but the first comprehensive vaccine against Meningococcal B will go on sale today.
However, it will burn a $500 hole in family budgets with babies requiring four $125 vaccinations before age two to gain full protection.
Novartis Vaccines, which makes Bexsero, plans to apply for a government subsidy later this year and if it is approved the vaccine could become part of the childhood immunisation schedule.
The infection which targets children aged under five and young people aged 15-24 is hard to diagnose because its symptoms are similar to cold and flu.
Around 200 Australians a year contract it and it kills up to 10 per cent of its victims.
One in five of those who survive the infection suffer from devastating, lifelong disabilities such as brain damage, hearing impairment or limb loss.
There are five strains of meningococcal infection and a vaccine for Meningococcal C has been subsidised for years.
Meningococcal B is a much more common infection, however, responsible for 83 per cent of cases in Australia.
Sydney mum Amanda Whicker was seven months pregnant when she almost lost her two-year-old son Joshua to Meningococcal B in 2011 and was told he would never walk or talk.
A GP failed to diagnose the infection and it was only after her husband noticed a pin prick-like freckle that a nurse at Campbelltown hospital recognised the problem.
Three years later Joshua has autism, anxiety disorder and attends a special school but therapy has helped him to walk and speak.
“I would 110 per cent urge any mum to give their child this vaccine,” Ms Whicker said.
“You can’t put a price on your child’s life, I would find the money.”
University of Sydney infectious diseases expert Professor Robert Booy says Australian parents have a high level of anxiety about meningococcal disease, which is more prevalent in spring and winter.
“This anxiety is understandable, as the disease is easily confused with the flu in its early stages and can progress rapidly to requiring intensive care,” he said.
Widespread use of the subsidised Meningococcal C vaccine has contributed to the virtual elimination of the disease in younger Australians, he said.
“To truly tackle the burden of meningococcal disease we need to ensure the widespread vaccination against Meningococcal B,” he said.
A baby would need a shot of the vaccine at ages two, four and six months and a booster at age two.
Children aged 12 months or older and adults require two doses of the vaccine a month apart.
Health department figures show there were 241 cases of meningococcal disease in 2011 and 222 cases in 2012.
Melbourne mum Fiona Campbell nearly lost her six-month-old baby Ben to meningococcal disease in 2011.
Ben’s hands and feet had been cold, he was off his food and wouldn’t settle but it was when he woke up in the idle of the night with a groin rash and “didn’t smell right” his parents panicked.
He was placed in a drug-induced coma by the Kyneton Hospital and sent by air ambulance to the Royal Children’s Hospital.
“It was frightening, surreal. We had a stillbirth the year before and to have this happen to him we thought we couldn’t go through that again, we couldn’t have that happen to him,” says Ms Campbell.
Doctors warned Ben’s parents they may have to amputate his legs to save his life but after five days he came out of intensive care and recovered.
The two-year-old is now developing normally.
“I think it was a combination of my alertness in getting to hospital, our family GP who was quick thinking and the doctors and nurses at the Children’s Hospital,” says Ms Campbell.
Ms Campbell says she doesn’t think parents are aware enough of the disease and it concerns her that doctors don’t often recognise it.
“If there is something out there that will avoid or decrease the chances of becoming ill, I’ll definitely have it,” she said.