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Health Canada Must Move Quickly on New Meningitis Vaccine

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VACCINE
AP

Just as Health Canada is considering approval of the first vaccine that would prevent the devastating disease that is Meningitis B, information from a recent study analyzing long-term affects of Men B on its victims should send a chill up our -- ironically enough -- spines.

Meningitis B is caused by a bacteria that infects membranes surrounding brain and spinal fluid. Ten to 15 per cent of its victims die, many in the first 24 to 48 hours. Men B symptoms mimic the flu perfectly, contributing to high mortality rates -- especially in babies who yet have no words.

In the late 1990s, a robust program of vaccinations against Meningitis C in Canada cut the incidence of this variant by over 80 per cent, leaving its ugly cousin Men B to carry on the mission of harm and heartbreak. It has done that job well as it remains the most common meningococcal disease in Canadian children.

Most studies tracking Men B survivors have focused on its immediate consequences. Approximately 11 to 19 per cent of survivors leave hospital with obvious, measurable long-term problems such as amputations, hearing loss and cognitive delays. These create an enormous financial and emotional burden on families and layer astronomical costs onto provincial health plans and taxpayers. Until now, there was little data on long-term affects of Men B.

Last month at the Infectious Disease Society of America Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, researchers from Tennessee's world-renowned Vanderbilt School of Medicine presented a study that should have parents lined up outside Health Canada offices demanding quick approval of the Men B vaccine.

Dr. Romina Libster, a vaccine researcher and pediatrician at Vanderbilt, studied 83 infants who survived Men B during 1998 to 2006. Half of these children were experiencing impairment with 30 per cent suffering from severe handicaps. Five infants who initially survived Men B died between six months and three years of age from problems directly related to Men B.

As a mother, this gives me fits.

In September, a vibrant teenager from British Columbia named Brandon died overnight in his bed of Meningitis B. Both his doctor and his family believed -- for good, clinical reasons -- he had the flu. In June, 14 high school students in Quebec reported possible Men B infections and one died of the disease,

The facts about Men B are clear: Canada still experiences deadly Men B clusters; even with immediate treatment, five to 10 per cent of patients die within 48 hours; half of the survivors experience loss of limbs, permanent neurological impairments or death; and Health Canada has the application for the vaccine that would stop all of this on its desk.

The only way to cure Men B is to vaccinate against it. It's sneaky in its presentation and devastating in its wake. Dr. Libster's study removes any doubt about the need for Canadian parents to have a Men B vaccine available before any more children die or suffer needlessly.

Health Canada needs to hurry up.

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