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Meningitis vaccine alert activated after years of being ‘switched off’

An automated emergency vaccine alert for a strain of meningitis has been activated in all GP practices operating under the EMIS system, to make sure all young patients are protected against meningitis.

It comes after the family of a 21-year-old from Tunbridge Wells who died from meningococcal sepsis (MenW) found that the EMIS alert was not active when their son was eligible for the vaccine. 

The alert was initially released on EMIS systems in July 2016 but was switched off when issued to practices, which meant letters were not automatically sent to young people who were eligible for the MenACWY vaccine.

EMIS told the charity Meningitis Research Foundation that the alert had been released as inactive to avoid ‘alert fatigue’.

Officials at EMIS said they released instructions to all practices on how to activate it in 2016.

NHS Digital confirmed to the charity that the alert was enabled for GP practices in England from the beginning of April on agreement from the Department of Health and Social Care.

EMIS chief medical officer Dr Shaun O’Hanlon said: ‘EMIS Health provides software systems to GPs including tools (such as alerts) to help them manage their patients. We advise GPs of the availability of these tools as they are released and it is the responsibility of the GP practice and NHS to define if and how they are used.

‘In July 2016, we proactively released an alert protocol for Men ACWY alongside instructions to all practices on how to activate it.

‘We will always follow the guidance and instructions from the NHS on matters of this type and in this case activated the Men ACWY protocol alerts for all practices in April 2019 following instructions from NHS Digital.’

Meningitis Research Foundation chief executive Vinny Smith said: ‘It seems absurd to us that an emergency vaccination programme to protect young people against a lethal disease had systems in place that were switched off.

‘Practices needed to activate the MenACWY alert protocol in order to use it but this would rely on them knowing how to do so. Practices told us they did not know how to activate the alert and we know deaths from MenW disease have occurred in young people who should have been offered the vaccine.

‘It’s positive news from Government that the alert has now been activated across England and that patients attending GP appointments opportunistically will now be made aware if they are eligible for the vaccine. It is vital that systems are improved so that this never happens again.’

Last year, EMIS launched the new cloud-based EMIS-X system, which will use voice-recognition to ‘automatically interpret’ patient-doctor conversations to turn them into ‘medical codes’.