Babies to be given 25 vaccinations in a year
Babies are to be given 25 vaccinations in a year in a move which sparked fears of 'immunisation overload'.
The current 21 will be increased by three of pneumococcal vaccine - against meningitis, blood poisoning and pneumonia - and a booster against Hib, an infection that can cause bacterial meningitis.
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Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson said the extra vaccinations would save at least 50 lives a year.
But campaigners fear that children are already being given too many jabs. Concern has been high since claims of a link between the triple MMR vaccine and autism.
Jackie Fletcher, of the pressure group JABS, said: "Our main concern is that the Government is ratcheting up the number of vaccines for under-twos, adding yet more to the huge number they already receive.
"We question the need and effectiveness of young babies having so many vaccines.
"We also have great reservations about the combination effect of these vaccines. We know that previous combinations have caused major problems in some children - we would like to know what trials have been done to prevent this happening again."
Britain already has one of the highest immunisation rates in Europe, with babies currently receiving 21 vaccines against nine different diseases between the ages of two months and 15 months.
In Sweden, babies under 15 months receive only 16 vaccinations while those in Denmark are given 18.
Under the latest plan, babies will be given new pneumococcal vaccines at two, four and 13 months - the last one coming at the same age as MMR.
They will also get a booster against Hib at 12 months in a combined jab with the meningitis C vaccine.
The Hib vaccine is currently given at two, three, and four months as part of a five-in-one jab which also protects against diptheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio.
Evidence of protection decrease
Meningitis C is now given at two, three and four months, but the two-month jab will be replaced by the one at 12 months following evidence that protection may decrease a year after vaccination.
Campaigners last night questioned the need for so many vaccines in the first place.
Mrs Fletcher said: "Under the new plans, children are going to be given another combined vaccine just a month before they receive the controversial MMR."
Dr Richard Halvorsen, a GP and child vaccination expert said: "By introducing these new jabs there is the worry that we may be overloading the baby's immune system.
"We are getting to the stage where we are vaccinating babies against diseases that are serious but very rare - such as pneumococcal infection - and where there are only a handful of deaths.
"I have not come across Hib and meningitis C being given in a combined jab and parents may be worried about the effects that this might have.
"With any combination vaccine there is the potential for interaction - at the very least this can decrease the effect and at the very worst it can increase the potential for side-effects which is what we have seen with the MMR jab."
There are around 5,000 cases of severe pneumococcal disease in England and Wales each year - of which around 530 are in children under two. It is estimated that about 50 children under two die as a result.
Programme will be 'welcomed by parents'
Announcing the changes, Sir Liam said the new vaccine programme, which will be introduced across the UK from April, would be welcomed by parents who were greatly worried about their children catching meningitis.
He added: "Pneumococcal infection can cause very serious illness such as meningitis and pneumonia as well as being one of the most common bacterial causes of ear infections.
"The under-twos are a particular risk group. The new vaccine will save lives and prevent hundreds more cases of serious illness and disability in both the young and old, as well as reducing the need for medical care."
Sir Liam rejected suggestions that children were being 'overloaded' with vaccines, branding the idea a myth.
He said: "Science shows that a baby's immune system can cope with thousands of vaccines. Children that are given vaccines tend to grow up to be more healthy.
"Immunisation is the best way to protect children from serious disease and the routine childhood programme has been extremely effective in achieving this.
"The changes set out today will further improve the programme and benefit children."
The vaccine is already used in a number of countries, including the US and Australia, but Sir Liam said the Government wants to make sure it was properly assessed and approved by its experts before introducing it here. He said the vaccine had had 'an immense impact' in the US since it was introduced a few years ago.
Cases of pneumococcal infection in youngsters had fallen dramatically and there had also been a 'herd immunity' effect, where older people benefit from lower levels of infection despite not receiving the jab themselves.
Sir Liam said: "Cases in young children caused by the strains in the vaccine have fallen by 94per cent, and cases in the over-65s have dropped by two-thirds."
He also announced a catch-up campaign to immunise youngsters under two with the new vaccine. This means costs for the first financial year will be around £100million, falling to around £80million in succeeding years.
Dr David Salisbury, the Government's head of immunisation, said the cost was high but justified by the lives saved and illness prevented.
He said: "The cost is high because this is a new and expensive vaccine. But for the expense you gain a great deal and we are going to get very good value for this."
Buying the vaccine as a private patient costs around £34, but the Health Department is likely to have negotiated a lower price with drug company Wyeth.
Denise Vaughan, chief executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation', said: "We are delighted that the Government is introducing these vaccines.
"We know it will save many young lives and we also hope to see benefits in the wider population. However, not all forms of meningitis and septicaemia are vaccine-preventable, so the public still need to be aware of the symptoms."
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