This month marks 20 years since, as health secretary, I signed off the introduction of a vaccination programme in the UK against invasive Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib). The anniversary allows us to reflect on the success of childhood immunisation programmes in reducing preventable disease and the contribution of primary care and community nurses in this.
The Hib vaccine programme has been a major public health success, helping to protect millions of infants from the most frequent cause of potentially fatal bacterial meningitis. Before its introduction in 1992, Hib affected around 900 people a year, mainly young children; Hib was the most frequent cause of childhood bacterial meningitis, causing death in around five to ten per cent of cases and long-term damage in up to a third of survivors, including deafness and epilepsy.
Today we have drastically reduced the disease in the UK thanks to a well-managed immunisation programme and the hard work of nurses who help raise public awareness about the importance of vaccination, and take such pride in delivering the programme so effectively.
In 2010, there were just 30 reported cases of Hib in England and Wales, with only six children under five years affected. There have been no fatalities from Hib since 2007. We have saved many lives and reduced the burden of treating diseases like bacterial Hib meningitis, septicaemia and pneumonia.
The immunisation programme has been so successful, many adults are now unaware of the fatal disease the Hib infection can cause and new research shows 62 per cent of adults are unaware that the Hib vaccine is part of the childhood immunisation programme.
At a time of NHS change, we must continue to recognise the value of administering vaccines and redouble efforts to ensure parents are aware of the crucial role the Hib vaccine plays in protecting our children from meningitis and other deadly diseases.
Rt Hon Baroness Virginia Bottomley, health secretary (1992-95) and chair of board practice, Odgers Berndtson