27 Sep 2021

Experts urge health authorities to fill gaps in meningococcal vaccination programme

7:01 am on 27 September 2021

Health experts have said more needs to be done to vaccinate young people against meningococcal disease and are calling on the government to fill significant gaps in the current programme.

MIQ and border workers getting Covid-19 Pfizer vaccine.

File photo. Photo: Supplied / Ministry of Health

Meningococcal disease causes two very serious illnesses - meningitis; an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, and septicaemia; a poisoning of the blood.

Young children and young adults are at high-risk of attaining the disease, which has dangerously similar symptoms to the common flu.

Rates of meningococcal have been on a steady incline for almost a decade, with 139 cases and 10 deaths in 2019.

Those rates are higher than many other countries in the OECD, according to the Meningitis Foundation.

Director of the Foundation, Andrea Brady, said there are significant amounts of people in high-risk groups and environments without access to vaccinations.

The government expanded its vaccination programme in 2019 to include more high-risk people.

Currently, those aged between 13 and 24 at boarding schools, university halls, military or in prison are eligible to be immunised against some strains for free.

But this is not covering enough people, health experts say.

"For example there is nothing that protects students living in share-house accommodation that would be in their first, second, or third years of university, or young people that aren't going to university but are still living in close quarters with other individuals, or those in multi-generational homes," Brady said.

Private vaccinations against the two common strains, meningococcal B and W, are available, but can cost up to $400.

Miwa Chapman, a University of Canterbury student who died last year from meningococcal, was living in a flat with her friends when she contracted the disease.

Her father, Paul Chapman, said even though she was not eligible for the free vaccination, if there had been more awareness, he would not have hesitated to pay for a vaccine.

"It's not an equitable situation, both the financial side of things and the awareness. In my mind, you need to be creating funding to ensure everyone has an opportunity to get vaccinated if they're in that vulnerable group. You can't say to yourself, you know, my child is healthy so they should be fine. Meningitis can hit any of these young people at any time."

Tarsha Boniface, who lost her 18-year-old daughter in 2018, said seeing more deaths each year to the disease is a heartbreaking and frustrating cycle.

"Every year we're having to relive it. Every year we see a story come up and it just breaks our hearts all over again," she said.

The Meningitis Foundation has now called on the government for a blanket vaccination programme, which would see all 16 year olds immunised before they leave high school.

The Immunisation Advisory Centre echoed the call, saying a wide-spread programme is the only way to assure those falling within the current systems gaps can be protected.

Its Medical Director, Dr Nikki Turner, said there are equity issues that need to be reduced.

"We know from international programmes, when you use it across the community, you reduce the carriage incidents in the back of the throat. So it offers more protection across the community rather just individual protection [of those vaccinated]," Dr Nikki Turner said.

She said the previous vaccination rollout for the meningitis epidemic between 2004 and 2007, which was school-based, was a success.

Many of the infants and young children vaccinated in the programme are now back inside a high-risk age group, but aren't protected anymore by their previous vaccination.

While meningococcal cases have decreased in the wake of Covid-19, Dr Nikki Turner said that won't last long.

"We're expecting to see, again, meningococcal rates will start to climb once we reopen our borders. So we do need to be prepared for this."

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