A new vaccine to combat one of the most lethal strains of meningitis will be given to babies in Northern Ireland from today [Tuesday].
Bexsero aims to fight infection by meningococcal group B bacteria, which can cause meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain) and septicaemia (blood poisoning).
The jab, available to infants born on or after July 1, is administered in separate doses at two and four months old with a further booster given at a year.
Campaigners say it could save thousands of lives.
Diane McConnell from the Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) said: “We hope this vaccine will save many lives and spare countless families the traumas of seeing a loved one die or become seriously disabled because of meningitis B.”
Since 2010 there have been between 25 to 35 cases of meningitis B each year in Northern Ireland.
Although it can affect people of any age it is most common in children under five.
A temporary catch-up programme is being rolled out for children born between May 1 and June 30 but MRF said the immunisation programme should be extended to all children under five.
“MRF will continue to campaign for a catch up programme for all children under five and teenagers who are the most at risk groups. The introduction today will undoubtedly save lives. It is great news,” Ms McConnell said.
Nationally around 1,200 - mainly babies and children - contract meningitis B each year, with around one in 10 dying from the infection and others left with permanent disabilities.
Dr Richard Smithson, consultant in Health Protection at the Public Health Agency (PHA) said the vaccine was an important development.
He said: “Meningococcal group B bacteria are a serious cause of life-threatening infections, including meningitis and blood poisoning, and are the leading infectious killer of babies and young children in the UK, so it is an important development that we are now able to vaccinate babies against it.”
This latest infant vaccine does not protect against all strains of meningitis so parents are advised to be aware of the symptoms which can include severe headaches, a fever and convulsions.
Describing the immunisation programme as “an historic step forward”, Health Minister Simon Hamilton has urged all parents to avail of the service.