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Meningitis vaccine is still on the shelf

Government has been considering decision for three years

A vaccine against the bacteria that causes meningitis and pneumonia in children has still not made it on to the list of free vaccines, even though the government has been “considering” it for the past three years.

In May 2009, the government’s advisory board on immunisation recommended the vaccine against the pneumococcal bacteria should be made available for free on the national health service.

Back then the government said it was considering introducing the innoculation.

But, three years on, The Times asked whether plans still held and the Parliamentary Secretariat res­ponsible replied: “At the moment it’s not included. Nevertheless, from time to time, new vaccines and free medicines are introduced. The list of free medicines was updated last March.”

The pneumococcal bacteria lives in people’s throats and normally causes very few problems.

But people with weak immune systems, including the young and the old, can face problems.

The vaccine protects against the bacteria that is a common cause of pneumonia, middle ear infections, meningitis and blood infections.

The pneumococcal vaccine was discussed during a conference for paediatricians held last month.

Canadian immunologist Lorna York, who works for Pfizer – one of the companies that produces the vaccine – stressed that a national immunisation programme to vaccinate children against the pneumococcal bacteria would benefit the whole Maltese community.

Across the globe, more than 800,000 children under five die as a result of contracting the bacteria each year.

In 2007 the vaccine was recommended by the World Health Organisation and since then more than 50 countries introduced national immunisation programmes.

Dr York said these countries had witnessed impressive reductions in potentially killer diseases since the vaccine carried direct and indirect benefits for society.

By vaccinating children, who are the main carriers, there was a lower risk of the bacteria being transmitted from one person to another.

As a result all vulnerable children and people, such as the elderly, benefited even if not vaccinated themselves.

“You can protect childrenindividually, which is really important… but with a national programme everybody gets that benefit,” she said.

There are two main vaccines against the bacteria – the Prenevar vaccine offered by Pfizer and another by GlaxoSmithKline.

Dr York said Pfizer recently launched Prevenar 13, an improved version of the original drug. This week the Health Ministry announced a programme to vaccinate all 12-year-old girls against the HPV virus that can lead to cervical cancer.

During an event to mark European Immunisation Week, Parliamentary Secretary for Community Care Mario Galea said 35,000 children were vaccinated in health centres in 2011.

A further 15,000 students were vaccinated at school.

During the seasonal influenza vaccination campaign held over last winter, at total of 77,000 people had injections.

He said Malta had three immunisation clinics and the vaccines offered for free on a national scale included Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus, MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), Hib, Hepatitis B, Pertussis and BCG (which protects against tuberculosis).

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