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NZ's influenza immunisation rates still too low

New Zealand’s influenza immunisation rates still too low says health strategy group

As we enter 2006 with the threat of pandemic influenza increasing, the National Influenza Strategy Group (NISG) says it’s vital that more people are immunised against seasonal influenza this season to reduce the spread of this serious and potentially fatal disease.

New Zealanders will be able to get their annual influenza vaccination from their family doctor from early March.

Influenza immunisation rates for the whole population currently stand at 17 percent and are low by international standards. New Zealand’s influenza vaccination rate for the whole population lags behind that of the US, Canada, UK, Germany and Australia. (MIV Study Group preliminary report to the World Health Organisation February 11, 2004).

Dr Jennings said that although seasonal influenza immunisation will not protect people from pandemic influenza, it was essential that people were aware of the seriousness of influenza in view of the ongoing global spread of bird flu and associated potential for a human pandemic influenza virus to emerge.

“By increasing the immunisation rates we can protect more people from seasonal influenza and ensure that systems for the use and distribution of influenza vaccines are able to operate on a large scale in the event of a pandemic,” said Dr Jennings.

NISG is concerned that in its latest research approximately 54 percent of those interviewed who were eligible for a free influenza vaccination had never been immunised because they believed that ‘being fit and active’ would protect them from the virus.

“Some people have still not got the message that ‘You’re never too fit to get hit’ by influenza,” commented Dr Jennings.

“Being fit, active and healthy does not protect you against influenza – it's highly contagious and anyone can catch it,” he added.

During the 2005 influenza season, 3,929 consultations for influenza-like illness were reported from a national sentinel network of 87 general practices. It is estimated that influenza-like illness affected 47,108 New Zealanders during the season, compared with more than 35,000 people in 2004. (ESR Influenza Surveillance Data).

Dr Jennings strongly urged people to get their annual influenza immunisation when it becomes available, particularly those who are most vulnerable and at high risk of complications. For these people, influenza can be a serious disease.

The influenza virus changes each year so it’s important that people are immunised annually to gain protection from the strains most likely to circulate.

The subsidised influenza vaccination campaign for high-risk New Zealanders -- people aged 65 and over and those with long-term health conditions such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, starts from early March and runs to June 30, 2006.

According to the latest HealthPAC figures for Primary Health Organisations only 61 percent of people aged 65 and over were vaccinated last year compared with 58 percent in 2004. The Government’s target is 75 percent.

PHARMAC, the Government’s drug-buying agency, has secured supplies from two vaccine manufacturers for 2006 – Vaxigrip® from Sanofi Pasteur through Merck, Sharp & Dohme NZ and Fluvax® from CSL Pharmaceuticals.

Dr Jennings said the new vaccines are expected to give the best protection against the strains of influenza, designated by the World Health Organisation, likely to be circulating in New Zealand in 2006, including A/New Caledonia/20/99(H1N1); A/California/7/2004(H3N2) and B/Malaysia/2506/2004

He stressed that the anti-viral medication, Tamiflu was not the answer to preventing seasonal influenza infection, however NISG is encouraging general practitioners to consider anti-viral treatment when influenza enters the community.

“The best way to protect ourselves against seasonal influenza is by immunisation, including vaccinating children,” he maintained.

NISG recently notified all family doctors and practice nurses of its plans for the 2006 influenza immunisation campaign.

Based on the research completed post the 2005 influenza promotional season, NISG will continue with the promotional campaign “You’re never too fit to get hit” as it had relevance to all target groups at greatest risk from influenza.

The Influenza Kit which is the backbone of the promotional resources will be very similar to last year’s Kit but with a few alterations, based on feedback received from a Health Professional survey. The Kit is planned to be available by mid-February 2006.

“We will focus our resources on additional support for GPs and practice nurses as they are essential to the success of the campaign,” said Dr Jennings.

NISG’s influenza website designed for health professionals will also have regular updates on the campaign to assist with queries. Health providers will be able to view and download resources from the site. They will also be able to customise the resources to fit the needs of their own organisation, for example, adding their own logo, or details of a local staff immunisation programme.


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