A vaccine against the deadly meningitis B infection is to be given to babies across the UK, officials have announced.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises all the UK governments on vaccine use, has agreed to adopt the Bexsero vaccine after initially rejecting it last year.
The U-turn followed mounting pressure from doctors and campaign groups who called for the vaccine to made available to infants, who are most at risk from the infection.
The Scottish Government welcomed the announcement and confirmed its commitment to the vaccination programme. The Department of Health in London will lead discussions on procuring the vaccine across the UK.
Public Health Minister Michael Matheson said: “I’m delighted that the JCVI has identified the importance of introducing this vaccine against Meningitis B.
“This disease can be devastating for children and their families, and I’m very keen that we take the necessary steps to tackle its effects.
“We will be working to ensure that this vaccine can be introduced as quickly as possible into Scotland’s routine childhood immunisation schedule.”
Last July the JCVI said the vaccine - called Bexsero and made by Novartis - was not a cost-effective use of NHS money “at any price” and could not be recommended, while also calling for further evidence.
But in October, following a campaign by scientists, charities and leading doctors who wrote to Westminster Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the JCVI issued a further statement saying it was considering new evidence and a range of views.
Now health officials have announced that the vaccine should be introduced on the NHS if costs can be agreed with Novartis.
The move was welcomed by charities and campaigners, who said it would save “thousands of lives”.
Under the plans, babies will be vaccinated from the age of two months, with a one-off catch-up programme for those aged three and four months.
Deputy chief medical officer Professor John Watson said: “Infants under one year of age are most at risk of meningitis B and the number of cases peak at around five or six months of age.
“With early diagnosis and antibiotic treatment, most make a full recovery. But it is fatal in about one in 10 cases and can lead to long-term health problems such as amputation, deafness, epilepsy and learning difficulties.
“We will now be working closely with Novartis in the coming months and, if negotiations are successful, we hope to work with the other UK health departments to introduce a vaccine to prevent meningitis B as quickly as possible. This would make the UK the first country in the world to implement a nationwide vaccination programme.”
Around 1,870 people are estimated to contract meningitis B each year in the UK. One in three survivors are left with debilitating after-effects such as loss of limbs or brain damage.
The Bexsero vaccine, approved by the European Medicines Agency more than a year ago, is estimated to cover around 88 per cent of meningitis B disease strains.
Meningitis B is most common in children under five and, in particular, babies under the age of one. Youngsters are already vaccinated against meningitis C.
While the meningitis B vaccination programme will initially cover infants, it is possible teenagers could be offered vaccination in future following further analysis by experts.
Christopher Head, chief executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation, said: “We are delighted that the JCVI have recommended vaccinating all babies against this most feared and deadly disease.
“It’s a wonderful outcome which will save lives and spare countless families the trauma of seeing a loved one seriously disabled by the devastating after-effects of meningitis B.”
Dr David Elliman, immunisation expert at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, added: “Children’s lives will be saved and some children will be spared severe preventable disability.”
Andrin Oswald, from Novartis Vaccines, said: “At Novartis, it took us over 20 years of hard work to get to this point.
“Protecting infants who are the most vulnerable will be a great achievement. It is also a strong motivator for us to continue our efforts to protect all children and adolescents against this devastating disease, in the UK and elsewhere in the world.