16/03/2015 11:25 GMT | Updated 20/05/2015 10:12 BST

3 Million Teenagers To Be Offered Meningitis Vaccine

Secondary schoolgirls receiving vaccinations against meningitis, Waverley School for Girls, Southwark, London, UK.

All teenagers aged between 14 to 18 are to be offered a meningitis vaccine after an alarming rise in cases.

In the last five years, there has been a five-fold increase of a 'highly aggressive' subtype of the disease which has led to the Department of Health making an emergency ruling to immunise three million teens.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation told the Department of Health that the steep rise in cases of meningococcal W disease was 'of great concern'.

It stated that 'levels of disease were consistent with an outbreak situation, with cases and deaths occurring in all age ranges, constituting a public health emergency'.

Until recently the strain had mainly affected the elderly, but the new bacterium is causing severe disease in teenagers and young adults.

Last year there were 117 cases, compared with 22 in 2009, the report shows, and in the last two years, there have been 24 deaths, compared with around four a year until 2012.

The committee said all 14 to 18-year-olds should be offered the immunisation to prevent transmission of MenW disease.

It said there was strong evidence that risks increased in late adolescence, so offering the jab before then was the 'minimum needed to rapidly generate herd protection'.

The Department of Health confirmed it would implement a vaccination programme, which it has been asked to do 'as soon as possible'.

Health officials were unable to say when this would be, but it is likely the jabs will be offered through schools over the next year.

Andrew Pollard, chairman of the JCVI said: "We have seen an increase in MenW cases this winter caused by a highly aggressive strain of the bug.

"We reviewed the outbreak in detail at JCVI and concluded that this increase was likely to continue in future years unless action is taken."

Health officials stressed that the total number of cases and overall risk remains low.

Signs of meningitis vary but can include fever or vomiting, a stiff neck and severe headache.

If a rash is present, and does not disappear when a glass is present, it can indicate blood poisoning, which is a medical emergency.

John Watson, deputy chief medical Officer for England, said: "We accept JCVI's advice for an immunisation programme to combat this devastating disease.

"We are working with NHS England, Public Health England and the vaccine manufacturer to develop a plan to tackle the rising number of MenW cases."

There are six different kinds of meningococcal infection - known as A, B, C, W, X and Y, which lead to Meningitis.

Currently vaccinations to protect against MenC are given to babies, with a booster around the age of 14. Jabs are also being offered to university freshers until today's teenagers start university.

Health officials said it had yet to be decided how the new programme will work, but it will mean that those aged between 14 and 18 are given a combined jab to protect Men A,C,W and Y.

Chris Head, the chief executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation, said: "We applaud the quick action by the government to protect 14 to 18 year-olds.

"However it will take more than a year for this protection to filter through to toddlers and infants by immunity, and in the meantime under-fives will still be dying and disabled as a result of MenW."

The charity said the rise in cases of the current strain of MenW was particularly alarming because it was mainly striking healthy people across all age groups, with a marked spike among teenagers.