The Government has announced hundreds of thousands of young people who are not fully protected against measles will be offered vaccinations against the deadly disease for free.
Schools and marae will help deliver the vaccines, with an emphasis on those aged 15-29.
Associate Health Minister Julie Anne Genter made the announcement today in Auckland in a bid to close the “overdue” immunisation gap to protect the health of communities.
“About 300,000 young people aged between 15 and 29 are not fully protected against measles, and this Government is determined to strengthen public health and address under-immunisation,” Genter said.
It comes after the Herald revealed a Ministry of Health report about how Government inaction left the door open to last year’s outbreak of the preventable disease.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Mike Hosking Breakfast to get ahead of the virus, better resources were needed including more nurses to give vaccinations in hard-to-reach communities.
Today, the Government has promised $23 million to strengthen New Zealand’s immunisation system, with more money to come.
Included in that funding was $1.4m for a business case to rebuild the National Immunisation Register to ensure better access to immunisation information.
Genter said adults had a much lower immunity rates to measles because they were not immunised as children.
“We are overdue to address that immunisation gap to protect the health of communities.
“Under-immunised people are at risk of catching and spreading this highly infectious disease, as we saw last year with a measles outbreak in New Zealand. Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect and prevent future outbreaks.”
District health boards will be tasked with delivering the vaccine programme.
“Measles immunisation will be more readily available at easy to access places like schools, workplaces, pharmacies and maraes,” Genter said,
“There will be a focus on improving access and equity for Māori and Pacific young adults in particular.”
Genter said more than 350,000 additional Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccines are earmarked for the campaign, and are expected to arrive in April after a six month manufacturing process.
“In 2019, more than 370,000 MMR vaccines were distributed compared to 150,000 in 2018. I’m looking forward to our health system hitting new milestones as the campaign rolls out this year.
“I am proud that this Government has heeded the call from medical professionals, that started in 2015, to run a catch up campaign to address measles.”
Plans to progress the review into last year’s measles outbreak were also under way to ensure the Government could learn from what happened.
“We all benefit when New Zealand has long-term protection against future outbreaks of measles, mumps and rubella,” Genter said.
Dr Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC), welcomed the announcement but asked how effective the catch-up campaign would be – given that 15- to 29-year-olds were “notoriously difficult” to access with preventative campaigns.
While there was currently high awareness of measles, it would be challenging to create the demand, get in touch with those whose immunisation status wasn’t known, and offer multiple ways for them to access the vaccine.
Despite the current measles outbreak being all but over, Turner said it was never too late to improve New Zealand’s vaccination levels.
“Obviously if we had moved earlier that would have ameliorated what happened but we still need to do it because if we don’t, we’ll continue to get transmission.”
Measles was an international problem, Turner said.
“We are struggling internationally with a real measles resurgence – it’s a real international traveller and it will continue to come in. Our response will be about how much we can block those immunity gaps.
“We also need to continue to put resources into our infant immunisation programme – we’ve done pretty well but we need to do better.”
She hoped to see the catch-up campaign used to also increase vaccination levels for other diseases such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and pertussis.
“It’s up to each DHB but particularly if it’s a school-based, teen-based approach, I would hope they consider offering HPV.” GPs should also be offering general vaccine catch-ups to anyone coming in the door, she said.