A leading cause for meningitis and septicemia in the UK is meningococcus B (MenB) bacterium infection. Healthy children can become severely ill within just a few hours if they contract meningitis or septicemia, as both illnesses develop randomly and with alarming speed. It often occurs in babies, very young children or teenagers between the ages of 15 to 19 years.

Each year, over 1,300 cases of MenB diseases are reported in the UK and Ireland. 5% of those who contract the disease will die, three quarters of which are children below the age of 5, and those who survive can be left with permanent disabilities, including deafness or blindness, developing learning disabilities, and having digits or even entire limbs amputated.

Pioneering scientists hope to find a way to provide an effective protection against the devastating disease by developing a new meningitis vaccine in which a harmless version of the cold virus is inserted with part of the bacterium.

Even though antibiotics can save lives, some children are too ill by the time they arrive at the hospital to receive antibiotic treatment, which makes vaccination the best option to prevent the disease. Although there are vaccines available in the UK that protect against other bugs that cause meningitis and septicemia, no approved vaccine is available that can protect children from MenB.

Researchers from Oxford University are currently developing a new vaccine against MenB, which they hope will provide protection for children. Leading researcher, Professor Andrew Pollard who is director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, explained:

“Vaccines normally contain fragments of the bug that causes a particular disease, or bugs that have been killed or weakened in some way. They work by stimulating a child’s immune system to recognize and attack the bug if it ever invades the body. We hope the new vaccine will give broad-ranging protection against the many, subtly different types of MenB bacteria. Evidence suggests that using the cold virus might stimulate a rapid, large and long-lasting immunity to MenB infection.”

The researchers are testing the efficacy of the novel vaccine in a laboratory model and investigate whether it is possible to use the vaccine in conjunction with other vaccines against MenB that they are researching in other projects. They hope that a combination of the most promising vaccine candidates into one single formulation could be a feasible option to boost their overall potency.

Dr Caroline Johnston, Research Evaluation Manager at Action Medical Research, explained:

“An effective vaccine could save many children’s lives and stop countless others from developing serious, lifelong disabilities, such as blindness, deafness and loss of limbs. Preventing disabilities could spare children from suffering and bring large cost savings – to the children, their families and society as a whole.”

The researchers hope the novel vaccine will benefit children from all over the world at an affordable cost to ensure widespread use. If their research proves successful, they plan to conduct clinical trials on the vaccine as soon as possible.

Written by Petra Rattue