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Children to be vaccinated against rotavirus

Children under four months will be vaccinated against rotavirus in an effort to halve the number of vomiting and diarrhoea cases and save the NHS £20 million a year, the Department of Health announced on Saturday.

The £25 million programme will begin in September 2013 to give manufacturers enough time to create enough vaccinations, with the vaccine offered to around 840, 000 infants under four months old.

It is expected to halve the number of rotavirus-caused cases of gastroenteritis and could lead to 70% fewer hospital stays, the DH said. Currently the bug leads to hospital stays for nearly one in ten of those infected in the UK- around 14,000 people.

It will be given orally as two separate doses of liquid drops to all children, starting when they are two months old.

This comes after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) concluded adding rotavirus to the children’s immunisation programme was cost-effective last May.

A DH spokesperson said it would be discussing with the GPC among others whether GPs will carry out the programme and, if so, how they will be paid. It hopes to finalise the details in the next few months.

GPC negotiator Dr Richard Vautrey said the GPC understood that rotavirus would be added to the current child immunisation programme, which is currently a part of the GMS contract. As changes are made to this programme routinely, it would not incur any extra work for GPs.

‘If the experts are telling us this is appropriate for reducing diarrhoea and illness in infants, it can only be a good thing,’ he added.

Ministers expect the programme will save the NHS £20 million a year through fewer stays in hospital, fewer GP and A&E visits and fewer calls to NHS Direct. 

The NHS Commissioning Board will become responsible for delivering the programme once it becomes operational from April 2013. It will be carefully monitored by Public Health England - a new body which will encompass the current Health Protection Agency (HPA) - from April 2013, and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Commenting on the announcement, chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies said: ‘It is upsetting to see our children ill in hospital. Rotavirus is the most common cause of diarrhoea in young children and this vaccine will protect our children and reduce hospital admissions for serious rotavirus infection.’

Dr David Elliman, immunisation specialist of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said ‘This is an important advance as whilst rotavirus does not cause many deaths in the UK, it does cause a huge amount of suffering. Rotavirus affects large numbers of under-fives causing them diarrhoea for a few days. This vaccine will mean less pressure both on distressed parents who have to care for their children and of course the GPs and hospital services who are treating them.’

RCGP chair Dr Clare Gerada said: ‘Anything we can do to prevent this illness should be seen as a positive development and we welcome the announcement of the vaccination programme for young babies.

‘Parents should be reassured that it can be easily incorporated into the routine childhood immunisation programme.’