Kiwi role in advance on new meningitis vaccine

Last updated 05:00 19/01/2012

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International research that drew on New Zealand's groundbreaking meningococcal B vaccine campaign is being hailed as a breakthrough in the fight against the deadly disease.

The B-group of meningococcal strains has been notoriously difficult to prevent, with no universal vaccine available.

Two Wellington teenagers – Penelope Lake and Joshua Hinaki, both 19 – died of the disease last year.

Trials of a Chilean-developed vaccine that offers protection have shown early success, with nearly all 1300 teenage participants still immune six months after receiving two or three doses.

Previous trials showed the vaccine was also successful in adults and infants.

The research, published today in the leading medical journal Lancet, drew on a vaccine specially developed to combat a meningococcal B epidemic in New Zealand in the 1990s and early 2000s, which killed 185 people and infected more than 4000.

The nationwide MeNZB campaign was launched in 2004, with about a million young New Zealanders receiving the vaccine before it was wound up in 2008.

However, that vaccine was designed to protect against only the particular strain circulating in New Zealand, so could not be used as a universal vaccine.

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

The two types most common in New Zealand are meningococcal B and meningococcal C, which has a universal vaccine.

Teenagers aged 11 to 17 who were given the Chilean vaccine all tested positive after six months for three key antibodies that protect against multiple B strains.

Components of the New Zealand vaccine were used to create it.

Immunisation Advisory Centre director of research Helen Petousis-Harris said the research was exciting.

"It's highly significant – it's the only candidate [for a] universal vaccine against group B at the moment.

"From what I can see, they've conducted a range of trials and it looks like it's generating a really good immune response."

New Zealand's Immunisation Technical Forum was likely to discuss it and make recommendations to the Health Ministry about whether it should be made available here, she said.

"It's a question of getting it licensed and then deciding if you'd put it on the immunisation schedule or make it available on the private market."

In a Lancet commentary piece, Professor David Stephens, of 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.

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"The 4CMenB vaccine could be a key to ... future prevention."

The vaccine had a good safety profile but there was still further research to be done, including determining whether the vaccine offered long-term protection, Prof Stephens said.

- The Dominion Post

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