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Meningitis Foundation Unsurprised By ESR Data Showing Growing Incidence Of Meningococcal In Young New Zealanders

Foundation says new Government must recognise need to vaccinate all young people

The Meningitis Foundation Aotearoa New Zealand says it is “unsurprised” by data released by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) yesterday showing that there has been an 88 per cent increase in the number of cases of meningococcal disease among Kiwi teenagers and young adults compared to the same time last year.

The data shows that those aged between 15-29 made up 35 per cent of all cases from 1 January to 31 December 2023. For the previous year, they made up 16 per cent of cases.

The Meningitis Foundation Chair, Gerard Rushton says that vaccination statistics released to the Foundation by Te Whatu Ora at the end of last year show that there is a concerningly low level of uptake of the MenB vaccine in young adults. He says that the increase in doses administered to infants likely corresponds to the drop in incidence, however it is unsurprising there has been an increase in incidence among young people aged 13-25 given just 9,612 vaccinations were administered between 1 March and 31 August 2023.

“Our pēpi and our tamariki now have access to the protection they need, but there is a massive gap when it comes to our rangatahi,” he says.

“We strongly believe the low vaccination rates among rangatahi are directly related to the fact that the eligibility criteria for free vaccines are too confusing and too narrow. The proof is in the pudding that New Zealanders want the vaccine when it is available to them. Why are we withholding it?”

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On 1 March 2023, Pharmac began funding the meningococcal B vaccine (Bexsero) for all children up to 12 months of age (with a relevant catch-up programme), and for people aged 13 to 25 years who are entering into or in their first year of specified close-living situations (with a limited catch-up programme).

The criteria are the same as those for existing meningococcal ACW&Y vaccine, which is also free to eligible groups. Following the expiry of the catch-up programme, only those in their first year in a specified close living situation will be eligible.

Close living situations include boarding school hostels, tertiary education halls of residence, military barracks, and prisons.

Gerard Rushton says that the confusing eligibility criteria has resulted in a lack of understanding about who can receive free vaccination, meaning that youth are missing out on being protected.

“Free vaccination has been a massive success in the age groups eligible under the Aotearoa Immunisation Register (AIR). The Meningitis Foundation has made an application to Pharmac to broaden the eligibility criteria to provide free vaccines to all young people between the ages of 13 and 25. We would suggest that Pharmac take note of the ESR data and take it into consideration when making their decision whether to add funded vaccination for all young people to their options for investment list. It will then be up to the Government to make the ultimate decision about ensuring our young people are protected.”

The Pharmac decision on funding vaccination for all rangatahi is expected to be announced in the first half of 2024.

Gerard Rushton says the fact that Māori youth are among those experiencing the largest increases in case numbers demonstrates a greater need for vaccine equity.

“We think that’s just unacceptable, and frankly, discriminatory. We need to be protecting our most at-risk populations. The alternative is that we will continue to see rangatahi die from meningococcal disease due to the lack of a comprehensive and timely vaccination programme.”

The symptoms of meningococcal meningitis in adults and children are:

  • A stiff, sore neck.
  • A sensitivity to light, or a dislike of bright lights (an early warning sign of meningitis).
  • A severe headache.
  • If the child or adult is difficult to wake, or in a drowsy and confused state.
  • A fever, sometimes accompanied by cold hands and feet.
  • Aching sore joints.
  • Vomiting – a common symptom of meningitis in both children and adults.
  • Convulsive fits or seizures is characteristic of meningitis.

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