Life-saving meningococcal B vaccination program continues indefinitely

Influenza is the leading cause of vaccine preventable hospitalisations for Australian children aged under five years.

South Australia’s world-leading Meningococcal B Immunisation Program will continue indefinitely after proving it’s been incredibly effective at preventing the illness in high-risk age groups.

It comes as a joint Women’s and Children’s Hospital and University of Adelaide study found the program has been key in a 60 percent reduction in cases among infants and a 73 percent drop in cases for adolescents.

“Our research found the immunisation program has been incredibly effective at preventing the illness in these age groups, which is largely due to the willingness of the community to get vaccinated and protect their babies, children and adolescents from the disease,”Professor in Vaccinology at the University of Adelaide, Professor Helen Marshall

Women’s and Children’s Hospital (WCH) Senior Medical Practitioner and Professor in Vaccinology at the University of Adelaide, Professor Helen Marshall, said the study examined the vaccine’s uptake and effectiveness.

“Meningococcal B is a rare but serious illness which can cause meningitis and septicaemia, potentially leading to permanent disability or even death,” Professor Marshall said.

“It can affect all age groups but is most common in children under five years old and in young adults aged 15 to 24 years old.

“Our research found the immunisation program has been incredibly effective at preventing the illness in these age groups, which is largely due to the willingness of the community to get vaccinated and protect their babies, children and adolescents from the disease.

“Surprisingly, the study also found the vaccine was 33 percent effective at preventing gonorrhoea in those vaccinated. This is exciting news as it shows the potential to provide protection against two very different diseases with the one vaccine. The meningococcal and gonococcal bugs share 95 per cent of their genes, so it is likely we are seeing cross protective antibodies.”Overall, the results of the study are reassuring because they prove vaccines like this are having a profound protective effect on infants and young people. It shows the importance of evaluating immunisation programs once they have been introduced in population programs.”

The Meningococcal B Immunisation Program was first introduced for infants under four years of age in October 2018, before being rolled out four months later to include adolescents aged 15 to 20 years, in a world-first.

WCH and University of Adelaide Post-doctoral researcher, Dr Bing Wang, said to assess the impact of the program, she first measured vaccine uptake in both age groups.

“The data shows almost 96 percent of eligible infants have received their first dose, 93 percent have received their second dose and 79 percent have received their third and final dose,” Dr Wang said.

“Thanks to the amazing efforts of immunisation providers of the School Immunisation Program, 77 percent of 16-year-olds have also received their first dose, while 69 per cent have received their second and final dose.”

Dr Wang then compared the number of meningococcal B cases reported in the six years before the program was introduced to the number of cases identified in the first two years program.

This shows a significant 60 percent reduction in meningococcal B cases for the infant age group and a 73 percent drop in cases for adolescents. The vaccine’s effectiveness was also found to be 92 percent in infants and 100 percent in adolescents.

Free meningococcal B vaccinations are available for children at six weeks, four months, and 12 months of age, with adolescents in Year 10 also eligible for a free course consisting of two doses, eight weeks apart.

Nearly 68,500 South Australian babies who have been born since the program started in October 2018 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while more than 58,000 students have received at least one dose of the vaccine as part of the School Immunisation Program. In 2019 the vaccine was given in year 10 and year 11. Since 2020, it has been given in year 10 only.

The landmark immunisation program was initially a three-year commitment, but the recent State Budget committed $3 million in 2021-22 and $5.3 million ongoing from 2022-23 to embed the program indefinitely for South Australian babies and young people. That’s on top of the $30.7 million allocated in the first three years of the program.

Minister for Health and Wellbeing Stephen Wade said given the program’s success, it will now be ongoing.

“Almost three years ago, we introduced Australia’s first free meningococcal B vaccination program for children less than four years of age before expanding it to adolescents and young adults in a world-first,” Minister Wade said.

“Vaccinations are a vital part in the fight against serious diseases, so it is incredible to see the rate of meningococcal B cases dropping so significantly since the program was introduced.

“This result is a testament to South Australian parents and carers for their willingness to protect their children, and others, from this potentially deadly disease.

“This landmark vaccination program is saving lives and protecting lives.”

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