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Babies to get free meningitis B vaccine


Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien

Tom Burke

Tony O'Brien

Children are to be offered a free vaccine against the deadly meningitis B strain next year as part of a €17.9m funding plan by the HSE.

The vaccine to protect against the killer strain can be given in the course of three jabs, and reduces the risk of needless death and disability in children.

HSE chief Tony O'Brien is asking the Government to fund the roll-out of the vaccine along with another jab to protect children from the rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhoea and sickness.

However, it will cost in the region of €17.9m to provide both vaccines to around 70,000 children next year, according to the HSE's submission to Government in preparation for the 2016 Estimates.

It is contained in its list of financial demands - amounting to nearly €2bn - for the health service for 2016, first revealed in the Irish Independent.

The meningitis jab has already been given the go-ahead in the UK.

It is being offered on the NHS for infants aged two months, followed by a second dose at four months and a booster at 12 months.

But the health service budget here could not afford to provide it as part of the regular schedule of vaccines, despite Ireland having the highest incidence of meningitis B in Europe.

Controversially, the HSE is also proposing to offer adolescent boys the HPV vaccine, currently given to secondary school girls to reduce their risk of cervical cancer.

The HPV virus is very common and is easily spread through sexual activity. The vaccine protects against two types of HPV which are responsible for most cases of cervical cancer in women.

Extending the HPV vaccine programme for boys would cost around €700,000 and would protect them from two strains of HPV which are responsible for 90pc of genital warts.

However, it could lead to criticism of the use of scarce taxpayer's money. The submission says it could also be offered to at-risk groups such as gay men to reduce risk of certain cancers.

Meanwhile, the document warns that patients could face drug rationing unless another €18.5m in funding is allocated next year.

The HSE said that without the extra €18.5m in funding for cancer drugs, there is a risk it may not be able to provide expensive newly prescribed medicines to fight the disease.

There will be a growth in the cost of existing drugs. "The service impact of not funding would be the inability to meet demand," said the HSE.

The health service now faces demands annually to fund a new generation of cancer drugs which are getting approval by agencies - but can cost thousands of euro per treatment for desperate patients.

The HSE has to battle with drug companies to negotiate a price while anxious patients plead for the treatments.

Referring to drugs costs generally, the submission said there is a general price freeze in place in relation to existing drugs. But there is an increasing trend by companies to tell the HSE it is no longer economically viable for them to supply niche products unless there is a price increase.

The key drivers in the drugs bill are the volume of medicines prescribed and the cost of new advanced medicines which are becoming available.

Overall, the HSE has estimated that an additional €597m is needed to improve services.

In order to keep service going it needs around €1.4bn.

The Government will be under pressure as the election looms to increase funding for the health service but it is unlikely to stretch to the €1.9bn set out in the submission which was sent earlier this month.

Irish Independent