The failure to vaccinate against meningitis attracts little attention, despite its deadly consequences. This week in parliament, my Labour colleague Jim McMahon and I strove to bring more attention to this vital issue, by asking the Prime Minister what the Government is doing both to raise awareness of this devastating disease, and to extend vaccinations against Men B to all children and teenagers.
There are many strains of meningococcal bacteria that can cause meningitis, the five most common types of which are routinely vaccinated against. Those most vulnerable to the disease are babies and teenagers. Whilst the former group are now protected by the landmark Men B vaccination programme that was introduced for babies in 2015, older children and teenagers are not eligible to receive the vaccine on the NHS.
The impact of this decision not to vaccinate children and teenagers against Men B has had devastating for thousands of families across the UK. These consequences have been felt first-hand in my constituency, where two young people studying at St Brendan's Sixth Form College - Izzy Gentry and George Zographou - have lost their lives to the disease in the past 18 months.
Despite Public Health England's announcement that these cases are unrelated, there is a strong argument that with increased vaccination, both of these deaths could have been prevented. The same holds true of Layla Rose Ermenekli, Jim McMahon's six-year old constituent, whose life was also tragically cut short by Men B.
In April 2016, one of the largest ever health e-petitions called for the Men B vaccine to be extended to older infants and children, prompting a parliamentary debate. The debate failed to achieve the objective of extending the vaccination programme, although the then Health Minister committed to publishing the so-called 'Cost-Effectiveness Methodology for Immunisation Programmes and Procurements' (CEMIPP) working groups' report into vaccine cost effectiveness. More than a year on, this report is still yet to be published.
A new petition by the family of Layla has received some 10,000 signatures to date. I would encourage all those who support the extension of the Men B vaccine to add their names, in order to show the Government that we will not back down on demanding action on this issue to protect our young people.
In the meantime, we need to work together to raise awareness of this illness, not only among parents and young people, but among health care professionals. Failure to spot symptoms of the disease has had deadly consequence, both for Izzy and Layla.
Meningitis Now are just one charity who do amazing work in raising awareness and campaigning for policy changes around the disease. I will be meeting with them and Izzy's father this week to film a video which is intended to increase awareness of meningitis among parents and young people ahead of Meningitis Student Awareness Week (22 -29 October).
Although the Prime Minister's response to my question was disappointing - especially as my office had given her advance notice - one positive outcome is that Jim and I have now been offered a date in a couple of weeks' time to meet with the Secretary of State for Health, with relatives of those who have so sadly lost their lives. I hope we can persuade him that it is time to extend the vaccination programme, so that no more young lives are taken away by this terrible, but preventable disease.
You can add your name to the Layla's Law petition here.
You can find out more about the great work being done by Meningitis Now here.