South Auckland GPs support planned rollout of meningococcal B vaccine

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Doctors in South Auckland say Pharmac’s plans to expand access to the meningococcal B vaccine for young people and infants are important to prevent another major outbreak of the life-threatening disease.

By local democracy journalist Stephen Forbes

But according to Papakura GP Dr Primla Khar, targeting the rollout to ensure the right communities receive it is key to its success.

Currently, the vaccine (Bexsero brand) is only funded for people who are in close contact with a meningococcal case or who are at high risk due to reduced immunity.

Pharmac is seeking comments on a proposal to fund the meningococcal B vaccine beginning March 1, 2023, for children up to 12 months, and a catch-up program for children 13-59 months through 31 August 2025.

It would also cover people between the ages of 13 and 25 who live in close quarters such as boarding schools and university residences.

“We had an almost endemic epidemic just over 15 years ago,” Khar said. “So if the data shows an increase anywhere in New Zealand, I think that’s a very good idea.”

She said people living in crowded conditions in socio-economically deprived areas like South Auckland were most at risk of contracting the disease and it was essential they were targeted in any deployment.

Papakura GP Dr Primla Khar says an endemic meningococcal B outbreak just over 15 years ago was a reminder of how deadly the disease is.

His thoughts were echoed by Dr. Api Talemaitoga, President of the Pasifika GP Network.

He said he did not want to see a repeat of the meningococcal B outbreak of the early 2000s which hit Pasifika and Māori communities in south Auckland hard.

But Talemaitoga said the message will be central to the success of the vaccine rollout.

“We have now learned from the pandemic how we can be smarter about getting the message out to people,” he said. “We need to stop using a one-size-fits-all approach and target those who need it most.”

Talemaitoga said that while the decision of whether a parent has had their child vaccinated is up to them, it is important that people make the decision based on reliable information.

Meningococcal disease can lead to serious illnesses, including meningitis (an infection of the membranes that cover the brain) and sepsis (blood poisoning). The disease can develop rapidly within hours and lead to severe disability or even death.

Pharmac’s chief medical officer, Dr David Hughes, said he wanted to prevent another major outbreak and that providing better access to the vaccine was essential.

“Over the past few years the number of reported meningococcal B cases has increased and we want to acknowledge the concern of the public and advocacy groups, including the Meningitis Foundation,” he said.

“We are aware that Maori and Pacific peoples have higher infection rates than the general population, so this proposal is a step towards better protecting these communities.”

According to the Department of Health, an increasing number of meningococcal B cases were detected in New Zealand in the late 1990s, leading to the development of the MeNZB vaccine.

It was offered to anyone under the age of 20 between 2004 and 2006, while vaccination of babies and preschoolers continued until June 2008.

Local Democracy Reporting is public interest journalism funded by NZ On Air

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