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Meningococcal cases rise

There has been an upswing in the number of cases of meningococcal disease across New Zealand, and Wairarapa hasn’t been spared.

Now, experts are warning of another nationwide meningococcal epidemic.

At the beginning of the covid-19 outbreak, the meningococcal disease was almost eliminated.

The Ministry of Health [MoH] reported fewer than 40 cases in all of 2020.

However, the Immunisation Advisory Centre said during 1991 to 2007, a New Zealand-only strain of meningococcal B caused an epidemic.

It said the epidemic mainly affected under-one-year-old Maori and Pacific infants and children aged 1 to 4 years of other ethnicities.

A free vaccination for the New Zealand-only strain is on the way and is set to be available from March 1, 2023 as part of routine childhood vaccinations.

Data provided by pharmaceutical company GSK, which manufactured the strain B vaccine, showed that Wairarapa had experienced about two cases of the disease this year.

It said cases across the nation had more than doubled since last year.

“There have been 69 cases of the invasive meningococcal disease this year.”

It said Wairarapa made up three per cent of the cases, but it was still a cause for concern.

MoH said the meningococcal disease was usually transmitted from people who carried the bacteria in their nose or throat but are not ill themselves.

“In some people, for reasons we don’t fully understand, these bacteria sometimes go on to cause disease, spreading through the bloodstream, causing blood poisoning, or to the brain, causing meningitis.”

University of Auckland Associate Professor Dr Helen Petousis-Harris said the rise in cases was a timely reminder to parents of infants and teens to be vigilant in identifying the early stages of the disease.

The World Health Organisation said meningitis was a largely preventable disease through vaccination, but progress in the fight against the disease was behind other diseases preventable by vaccination.

Petousis-Harris said there was often confusion about protection status with parents who may think their children were already covered under the childhood immunisation schedule.

“Infants are a high-risk group because their immature immune system makes it easier for the bacteria to invade their bloodstream, and they have not had time to develop natural immunity.

“Children who attend preschool or daycare are also at greater risk.”

Petousis-Harris said the meningococcal disease could have a debilitating impact on patients and their whanau.

“It may loiter around in the community without any cases, and then all of sudden, you can have a surge and an outbreak.”

“We have been concerned for a long time about the potential for New Zealand to experience a significant outbreak.”

GSK said New Zealand had a higher rate of invasive meningococcal disease than other developed nations, and the rate of the disease had been increasing since 2014.

“Even with prompt medical care, around one in every ten patients who contract the disease will die, and up to one in five survivors will have permanent disabilities, such as brain damage, amputated limbs and hearing loss.”

GSK said there were multiple strains of the meningococcal disease, but meningococcal B was the most common in Aotearoa.

It said the meningococcal B vaccine would be funded in New Zealand as part of scheduled childhood immunisations from March 1, 2023, with a catch-up programme for the next two and a half years to provide vaccination for all children under the age of five.

The vaccination would also be funded for people aged 13 to 25 in close-living situations, including hostels, boarding schools, halls of residence and the military, with a one-year catch-up programme for young people already living in closed living environments.

The vaccine was previously only funded for those with reduced immune function or close contact with a meningococcal case. Regional Public Health said another vaccine protecting against strains A,C,W, and Y was already available for free.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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