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Immunisation A Priority For The Ministry Of Health

5 February 2001

Changes in immunisation effective this month reflect the Ministry of Health's commitment to protecting the health and well-being of our children and the community.

"Immunisation is one of the most effective ways to make our community healthier, not just children but adults too," Director of Public Health, Dr Colin Tukuitonga, said when launching changes to the National Immunisation Schedule and the revised Immunisation handbook 2002.

"By immunising our children and preventing the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases in the community we can reduce the incidence of hospitalisation and disability associated with these deadly diseases."

The nine vaccine preventable diseases which all New Zealand children can be protected against are: Diphtheria, Tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, Hepatitis B, haemophilus influenzae type b, measles, mumps, rubella. Adults aged 45 and 65 years can receive the tetanus-diphtheria booster and those aged over 65 years, or with chronic illness, can receive influenza. These vaccinations are all free as they are part of the National Immunisation Schedule.

"When it comes to immunisation messages, I and other health professionals sound like 'same old, same old'. In a way that is because we are a victim of our success, because we don't see, on any large scale, the devastating effects of many of these diseases anymore," says Dr Tukuitonga.

"Because we don't see them, we've become complacent. We've forgotten what serious illnesses they are, and the devastation they leave in their wake, on families, on parents, on communities. For example, polio which can leave its victims paralysed for life. Why would anyone knowingly expose a child to that sort of suffering?"

Dr Tukuitonga gave the example of the introduction of haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) as an example of the success of modern vaccines. Since its introduction in January 1994, there has been a greater than 90 percent reduction in the incidence of Hib disease in children aged less than five years of age. However the reduction has not been as great as in those countries where immunisation coverage is higher.

Before immunisation was available Hib was the commonest cause of life threatening bacterial infection, usually meningitis, in children aged under five years of age. Despite the availability of antibiotics and medical care, the case fatality rate remains up to five percent and survivors of Hib meningitis may have a 30 -40 percent risk of long term neurological developmental impairment.

Measles is the most common vaccine preventable cause of death among children throughout the world. During the 1991 epidemic in New Zealand, 629 people were hospitalised, four unimmunised children died, and it is estimated that between 40,000 to 60,000 cases developed during the epidemic.

Dr Tukuitonga said that it is necessary for a certain percentage of the community to be vaccinated in order to protect the health of the whole community. This means that if enough children are vaccinated against a disease it will not be able to circulate in the community and the risk of the disease infecting an unimmunised person, or one who failed to respond to immunisation, is reduced. This is termed herd immunity.

"We are failing to achieve this level of protection in New Zealand, a first world country. Only 53 percent of Pacific Island children and 45 percent of Maori children are fully immunised by two years of age."

"Immunisation is a Government key objective as well as a personal objective for many health profesionals and individuals working within the Ministry of Health."

It's importance is underlined by immunisaton being included as one of the 13 priority areas in the New Zealand Health Strategy which sets the goal of achieving 95 percent immunisation coverage by 2004.


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