Parents are being urged to immunise their children against the country’s most common type of meningococcal disease.

A vaccine for meningococcal B is now available for purchase in New Zealand.

The disease is an uncommon but life-threatening bacterial infection that causes meningitis — an infection of the membranes that cover the brain — and septicaemia.

Meningitis Foundation spokeswoman Andrea Brady said meningococcal B could strike at any age, with children most at risk.

The vaccine was the only form of protection against meningococcal B.

“It’s like putting on a seatbelt in a car. The vaccine is the only thing we have to protect our children.”

The disease progressed rapidly and a child could go from having flu-like symptoms to death in a period of 24 hours, she said.

“When you talk to people who have experienced it, they will tell you it is the scariest disease they have ever encountered. It advances incredibly rapidly, it’s scary.”

Auckland mother Sheryl Martin, whose daughter Sara contracted the disease in 2004, said she encouraged everyone to get the vaccine.

“It is a horrible, horrible disease. The sooner it can be controlled the better. It moves so fast, it cut our healthy young daughter down in hours.”

Sara, aged 21 at the time, spent four days in a coma and still has side effects from the disease.

“On Thursday she went to work and wasn’t feeling too well. By Friday night she was in hospital with three security guards holding her down. You become a raging animal as your brain tries to fight. The doctors worked on her for three hours in the ICU trying to get her stable.”

Martin said Sara’s symptoms began as “classic flu”, before progressing rapidly.

“As soon as she was recovered we got the vaccine, all of us. We absolutely, 100 percent, support it.”

Brady said parents and whānau should be asking their doctor about the vaccine.

“If the vaccine can save another family from experiencing the heartache or heartbreak that those who have had the disease have gone through, there should be no question about its availability,”

Parents should “trust their instincts” and seek medical help if they were concerned for a child, Brady said.

“Every second counts.”

Vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris said the disease was rapid and unpredictable.

“Meningococcal B is a disease that every parent knows about and every doctor is terrified of missing. It’s a disease we’re all scared of.”

Petousis-Harris said it was hard to predict when a new outbreak of meningococcal disease might occur.

She said infants were one of the most vulnerable groups.

“Infants will have not yet developed natural immunity which is gained via the harmless carriage of both meningococcal and other similar bacteria. In other words, their bodies have not been educated to protect them against meningococcal disease should the bacteria invade their bloodstream.”

Māori and Pasifika infants under the age of one have about six times higher meningococcal B rates compared to other populations in New Zealand.

Petousis-Harris said once children got older, other risk factors for the disease developed.

“In the case of adolescents it is likely lifestyle factors play a part. Sharing of spit, smoking, drinking, staying up late, perhaps preceding viral infections.”

Over-crowding, such as student hostel accomodation, was also a major risk factor for the disease.

A meningococcal B epidemic between 1991 and 2007 claimed 252 lives. A short-term nationwide vaccination programme using a tailor made vaccine (MeNZB) was introduced between 2004 and 2008.

However, Petousis-Harris said toddlers immunised during the last epidemic would now be entering the high risk adolescent age group and needed to be vaccinated again.

Brady said the Foundation would be pushing for the new vaccine, Bexsero, to be added to the National Immunisation Schedule. It is currently only available for private purchase through healthcare professionals.

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