Young New Zealanders are dying and being left disabled because vaccines that protect against meningococcal disease cost hundreds of dollars.
Even if parents can afford to immunise their children they often don’t realise the vaccines exist.
The Meningitis Foundation is seeking to change that through a petition that will be presented to Parliament in early 2022, and calls on the Government to provide free vaccines for all preventable forms of meningococcal disease to students in Year 11, or at 16 years of age.
It says that should eventually be followed by adding the vaccines to the childhood immunisation schedule, which is the series of vaccines offered for free to babies and children.
Andrea Brady, one of the founding directors of the Meningitis Foundation, told the Herald the current situation meant only those who could afford to were able to protect their children.
“This is a significant disease that can take a life extremely quickly. A lot of people don’t even know that there are vaccines available.
“We think it makes sense to vaccinate our teenagers before they leave school. There are people who die in their first or second year of university. It is a tragic death. Meningococcal disease and meningitis doesn’t discriminate by age, gender or social status. It can affect anyone at any time.”
Meningococcal disease is an infection caused by the bacteria neiserria meningitidis, also known as meningococcus, which is transmitted through close personal contact including sneezing, sharing drinks, coughing and kissing.
Infection can quickly cause meningitis (inflammation of the membranes around the brain), septicaemia (blood infection) and pneumonia.
Different vaccines are needed to protect against the most common types of meningococcal disease – one to protect against A, C, W & Y strains, and another to protect against meningococcal group B disease.
The Bexsero vaccine protects against B and can be given from 2 months of age. Infants younger than 12 months need three doses to be fully protected, and older children need two doses. The cost is about $150 per dose.
Menactra is a vaccine that protects against groups A, C, W and Y. The cost is about $150 per dose, and two doses are needed for children aged 9-23 months, and one for anyone older. Another vaccine available is Nimenrix.
Pharmac is responsible for prioritising and purchasing vaccines, and because it has a limited budget must balance the significant cost of any extension of access against what other life-changing and saving drugs might be made available to New Zealanders.
Since July 1, 2020, free access to Bexsero was expanded to close contacts of meningococcal cases, or people at higher risk, including the immunocompromised.
Menactra is funded for children and adults with a medical condition that increases their risk. Since December 2019 young people in boarding school hostels, university halls of residence, military barracks and prisons can also get a single dose free.
Brady said that excluded other young people at higher risk, including those living in overcrowded housing. New Zealand was lagging behind comparable developed countries in not extending funding for the vaccines, she said.
“We are calling on the government to broaden access to the A, C, W, Y and the B vaccines to all teenagers.”
Parliament’s health committee recently responded to a similar petition by Nicole Moana, for free vaccines for all New Zealanders covering all meningitis strains, and for better education about the disease.
Moana’s niece, Chloe Boniface, died in November 2018 of meningitis B after suffering flu-like symptoms including a headache, sore body and fatigue. The 18-year-old had just completed her first year of university in Wellington.
In its response to Moana’s petition in September, the health select committee, chaired by Labour MP Dr Liz Craig, noted that, “Pharmac told us that it would like to fund these vaccines for more New Zealanders when, and if, sufficient funding is available in its combined pharmaceutical budget”.
The number of cases of invasive meningococcal disease had increased since 2014, with 139 cases and 10 deaths in 2019. However, case numbers dropped to 35 in 2020, which the Ministry of Health believes is probably due to Covid-19 restrictions.
The health committee said Pharmac’s recent widening of access to the vaccines was pleasing – about 35,000 additional people were eligible for the ACWY vaccine since the criteria was changed, and around 1500 extra people each year will get access to Bexsero.
“We note that the decisions were made according to Pharmac’s usual processes,” the committee reported. “We were also pleased to hear that Pharmac is considering widening access to other population groups. We will monitor the outcome of these proposals with interest.”
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