Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Vaccine hope for deadly meningitis strain

International researchers draw on NZ success in fight against meningococcal B. Photo / Thinkstock
International researchers draw on NZ success in fight against meningococcal B. Photo / Thinkstock

A vaccine has been developed against the last unpreventable strains of meningococcal disease - a breakthrough which drew on an earlier ground-breaking New Zealand vaccination campaign.

Chilean-led researchers have developed a new meningococcal B vaccine which has proved to be highly effective and safe in tests on toddlers, teenagers and adults.

The vaccine would be the first against all strains of meningococcal B, which are the most deadly and can kill in under four hours.

It is expected the new vaccine, called 4CMenB, will be licensed for use by pharmaceutical giant Novartis in the next few months.

The vaccine's development drew on a successful vaccine developed in response to a meningococcal B epidemic in New Zealand in the 1990s and early 2000s, which killed 185 people.

However, because that vaccine was developed to protect against only the particular strain circulating in New Zealand it could not be used as a universal meningococcal B vaccine.

Dr Philip Carter, a science leader in the health programme at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, said the new vaccine could prove very important for New Zealand.

"Although we're now basically back to pre-epidemic levels [of meningococcal disease], we still see important cases, particularly up in Northland.

"It's really [meningococcal B] that we don't have an effective vaccine for at the moment ... we wouldn't need a specific vaccine every time there's a large outbreak of group B cases."

Dr Carter said New Zealand's pioneering meningococcal B vaccination campaign had contributed to the latest discovery.

"All vaccine work is based on what have we seen in the past, and how can we go forward? And certainly what we've done in New Zealand has helped drive interest in group B vaccines."

There are about 100 cases of meningococcal disease notified in New Zealand each year. Between 2006 and 2010, there were between 5 and 8 deaths per year from meningococcal disease. Last year there were 12 deaths, though eight were from meningococcal C.

The 4CMenB vaccine was developed in a different way to the current meningococcal C universal vaccine, which could lead to a vaccine against all strains of the disease, researchers said.

In a Lancet commentary piece published yesterday, Professor David Stephens, from Atlanta's Emory University, said the new vaccine was "a potential breakthrough".

"[Meningococcal B] is now the leading cause of meningococcal disease, especially in infants and young children in many countries. No vaccines are in routine use for [its] prevention."

He cautioned that further research would be needed to determine whether the vaccine gave long-term protection.

Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacterium, Neisseria meningitis. It can cause meningitis (infection of the membrane around the brain) or septicaemia (blood poisoning).

There are six types of meningococcal disease, which all have multiple strains.

DISEASE IN NZ

* 100 cases of meningococcal disease notified in New Zealand each year.
* Between 5 and 8 deaths a year from meningococcal disease between 2006 to 2010.
* 12 deaths last year, although eight were from meningococcal C.

Meningococcal B

* Only unpreventable strain of meningococcal disease.
* Can kill in four hours.
* New vaccine, 4CMenB, could cover all group B strains.

- NZ Herald

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