Researchers say a comprehensive meningococcal B vaccination program in the Northern Territory could help deliver the vaccine to more children and adolescents across the country.
Most important points:
- Not all children and adolescents are eligible for free meningococcal B vaccination
- A pilot program in the Northern Territory will assess whether the vaccine can also protect teenagers from gonorrhea
- A lead researcher says the findings could influence vaccination policy worldwide
The bacteria that cause the B strain of the disease are among the most common form of meningococcal disease in Australia, but unlike the ACWY vaccine, the B vaccine is not part of the National Immunization Program for all young people.
Babies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and those with certain medical conditions have free access to the vaccination, but others must pay up to $150 for a dose.
The Northern Territory began offering the vaccine to people ages 14 to 19 last year and has now expanded that program, which is part of a research trial.
Helen Marshall, a vaccinology expert at the University of Adelaide, said there was “increasing evidence” that the meningococcal B vaccine could provide some degree of protection against gonorrhea.
Internationally important research
Meningococcal disease is rare, but infections can be life-threatening.
About 10 percent of the population carries the meningococcal bacteria in their throat at any time, and they can spread through close contact, such as kissing.
Gonorrhea, on the other hand, is much more common, with approximately 86 million cases of the sexually transmitted disease being recorded worldwide each year.
Professor Marshall said that “even a small impact on gonorrhea would have a huge impact”.
Gonorrhea infections, especially in women, are often asymptomatic and repeated infections can lead to infertility.
South Australia do it alone
It would be up to the manufacturer to make a new bid to have the vaccine included in the federally funded National Immunization Program.
The most recent review was in 2019, when the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee recommended making it available to First Nations babies, but found it would not be cost effective to subsidize the vaccine for children or adolescents in general.
The only state to fund its own meningococcal B vaccine program is South Australia, which did so in response to the strain’s percentage nearly double the national rate.
Professor Marshall was a principal investigator in the South Australian B In It study, which she said showed that the meningococcal B vaccine was “100 percent effective” in protecting adolescents from the disease.
However, unlike other meningococcal vaccines, the B vaccine does not appear to reduce the transport of the bacteria that cause the disease, meaning it cannot be used to build herd immunity.
Flu season an increased risk
The vaccine was recently offered to students at a secondary school in Cairns after three cases of the disease were discovered over there.
Professor Marshall said bad flu seasons often led to an increase in meningococcal cases and flu vaccinations would be important to reduce the risk this winter.
“It’s very likely that you have an infection that disrupts the cells in the throat,” she said.
“There’s a lot of inflammation, and if you really have that hypervirulent strain of meningococcus with you at that point, you’re more at risk of that bacteria getting into the bloodstream.”
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