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Launch of Meningococcal B immunisation programme

Mon, 13 Sep 2004

Launch of Meningococcal B immunisation programme

Health Minister Annette King spoke at the New Zealand Immunisation Conference, where she said she could not overemphasise how important it is, for the health of New Zealand's children and young people, to create as much understanding as possible about the Meningococcal B programme.

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This year's annual immunisation conference takes on special significance with this second day dedicated to the launch of the long-awaited Meningococcal B immunisation programme.

I am delighted that the Immunisation Advisory Centre and the Ministry of Health decided on this format, because I cannot overemphasise how important it is, for the health of New Zealand's children and young people, to create as much understanding as possible about the Meningococcal B programme.

It is an honour and privilege to be with you all on this very special occasion, and I want to reiterate how proud I felt to be able to announce the rollout of the vaccine in July, and to be present in Mangere when the first children were vaccinated on July 19.

I don't know if it is technically possible to have more than one culmination, but, as far as I was concerned, July 19 was the first culmination of the $200 million meningococcal vaccine project I announced in January 2002 to fund development of a specific vaccine to combat New Zealand's strain of meningococcal group B bacterium.

The second culmination will come when the vaccine has been rolled out across the whole country, and I can assure you that will happen as quickly as possible.

The epidemic has killed some 220 New Zealanders and affected thousands of other young people since it started in 1991, and this Government decided very early in its life that New Zealand simply could not allow those sorts of statistics to continue.

We have now begun the fight back, but everyone in this room today continues to have a strong role to play in ensuring that that fight back is the success it deserves and needs to be. I am delighted to see so many people in the audience who have played a significant role over the past few years on various aspects of the vaccine strategy and the immunisation programme. On behalf of New Zealanders, I specially want to acknowledge and thank Dr John Lambert, President of Chiron Vaccines, for the part his technical and management teams, working in collaboration with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, have played in the successful development of a tailor-made vaccine.

Thank you also to Dr Diana Martin and her team at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited for their disease surveillance and antibody testing work, and to Professor Diana Lennon, who has led the University of Auckland team undertaking the clinical trials.

There are so many other people to thank too, and if I went through the whole list, long though it would be, it still would not include the thousands of nurses and doctors who have started to vaccinate our children, or who will be doing so as the vaccine reaches their regions.

Many of those who deserve to be named are sitting in this room today. Please accept a big thank you from New Zealanders for the work you have done, or are still doing.

Meningococcal disease is one of the most feared childhood diseases in New Zealand. As we all know, it strikes quickly and at random. Far too many times we have seen the tragedy it causes.

This new vaccine, developed specifically for the New Zealand strain, gives us a real opportunity to control the epidemic, and we must make the very most we can of it.

I say that in the broadest sense too, because while it is vital in itself to vaccinate as many children and young people as possible with this vaccine, it is my hope that this programme also helps promote immunisation generally through the increased presence of trained community vaccinators and spreading of the immunisation message.

We have to keep pushing this message, because there are still those in our community who continue to try to raise uninformed fears and doubts about all sorts of immunisation, and who too often are given almost unquestioning media acceptance.

Given the activities of anti-immunisation groups, it has been particularly pleasing seeing the really positive response for the first-stage delivery of the vaccine in Counties Manukau District Health Board and eastern suburbs of Auckland District Health Board.

So far consenting rates in participating schools have been phenomenally high, reaching more than 95 per cent in some schools. By the end of August, primary care providers had delivered more than 25,000 doses, and some 35,000 doses were delivered in the first four weeks of the school-based campaign.

These are fantastic results, and the success can be put down to an incredible team effort on the part of the Counties Manukau DHB, its public health nurses, the principals, teachers, office staff, parents and of course, children and young people themselves, practice nurses and doctors.

Everyone is making an extraordinary effort. The challenge will be to keep the momentum going as the programme reaches other DHBs, whose communities might not feel they are at the same risk as the highest risk communities who are being vaccinated first.

We have to keep that momentum going, however, because everyone in this room knows how long a road it has been to get where we are today with a campaign that is now also attracting considerable international scientific and medical interest.

The delivery of this vaccine is New Zealand's largest immunisation programme with three doses given at six-week intervals to more than one million children and young people.

A multiple dose immunisation programme of this size has never been undertaken in this country before. No other programme has involved all schools where all students are offered immunisation and where immunisation requires three vaccinations.

At the same time, no other infectious disease creates the same fear among parents due to its swiftness and severity.

I am well aware the campaign means an extra workload for health organisations and professionals who are already busy enough anyway. I just hope you share my view that if we achieve our goal, all the effort will have been worthwhile. I have no doubt about the wider health sector's commitment to trying to protect our young people.

If we succeed in immunising 90 per cent of our population aged from 0-19 years, and I am increasingly confident we will do so, we can beat this devastating disease.

Again, please accept my thank you for the magnificent commitment the health sector is showing toward successfully carrying out this programme.

I hope that planning, co-ordination and delivery of the many strands of the programme has been exciting as well as challenging, but we would not have got anywhere near as far as we have got without your commitment.

When New Zealanders unite behind a goal that is vital for the country's wellbeing, they become a formidable force.

And, as far as I am concerned, the more formidable we become in this campaign, the better pleased I will be.

Thank you again for inviting me to today's session, and I wish you all the best for the remainder of your conference and for the remainder of this outstanding immunisation programme.

ENDS

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