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Scientists want to know whether meningococcal B vaccines could protect against gonorrhoea

The meningococcal B vaccine, Bexsero, is not broadly available to all young people on the National Immunisation Program. (ABC News: Selina Ross)

Researchers say an expanded meningococcal B vaccination program in the Northern Territory could help build the case for the vaccine to be provided to more children and adolescents nationwide.

The bacteria that cause the B strain of the disease are among the most common type of meningococcal in Australia but, unlike the ACWY vaccine, the B vaccine is not part of the National Immunisation Program for all young people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infants and those with certain medical conditions can access the vaccination free of charge but others must pay up to $150 for a dose.

The Northern Territory began offering the vaccine to people aged 14 to 19 last year and it has now extended that program, which is part of a research trial.

Helen Marshall, an expert in vaccinology at the University of Adelaide, said there was "mounting evidence" the meningococcal B vaccine could provide a degree of protection against gonorrhoea.

"The reason why we're doing it in the Northern Territory is because [it has] the highest rates of gonorrhoea in the 15 to 19-year age group, which is when you're actually giving the MenB vaccine to protect against disease," she said. 
Professor Helen Marshall is the lead investigator for the "B Part of It" meningococcal B vaccine study. (Supplied: AOTY)

Internationally significant research

Meningococcal disease is rare but infections can be life-threatening.

About 10 per cent of the population carries the meningococcus bacteria in their throat at any one time and they can spread through close contact, such as kissing.

Gonorrhoea, meanwhile, is much more common, with about 86 million cases of the sexually transmitted disease recorded worldwide each year.

Professor Marshall said "even a small impact on gonorrhoea would have a huge impact".

Gonorrhoea infections, particularly in women, are often asymptomatic and repeated infections can lead to infertility.

South Australia going it alone

It would be up to the manufacturer to make a fresh bid for the vaccine to be listed on the federally funded National Immunisation Program.

The most recent assessment was in 2019, when the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee recommended it be made available to First Nations infants but found it would not be cost-effective to subsidise the vaccine for children or adolescents more broadly.

The only state that funds its own meningococcal B vaccine program is South Australia, which did so in response to rates of the strain almost double the national rate.

Unlike the B vaccine, the ACWY meningococcal vaccine has shown effectiveness at preventing carriage of the bacteria. (ABC News: Selina Ross)

Professor Marshall was a lead researcher in the South Australian B In It trial, which she said showed the meningococcal B vaccine was "100 per cent effective" in protecting adolescents against the disease.

However, the B vaccine – unlike other meningococcal vaccinations – does not appear to reduce carriage of the bacteria that cause the disease, meaning it cannot be used to build herd immunity.

Flu season a heightened risk

The vaccine was recently offered to students at a secondary school in Cairns after three cases of the disease were detected there.

Cases of the B strain have also been detected in recent days in Adelaide and Northern Tasmania.  
A distinct rash can be one of the clearest signs of meningococcal disease. (Supplied)

Professor Marshall said bad flu seasons often led to a rise in meningococcal cases and flu vaccinations would be important in reducing the risk this winter.

"It's very likely having an infection that disrupts the cells lining the throat," she said.

"There's lots of inflammation and if you're actually carrying that hypervirulent strain of meningococcal at that time, you're more at risk of that bacteria being able to get into the bloodstream."

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