World Meningitis Day comes at a crucial time for funding of vaccines for killer disease

Meningitis Foundation urges Government action

The Meningitis Foundation Aotearoa New Zealand is using World Meningitis Day today (Wednesday 5 October) to push for urgent funding of vaccines for all 16-year-olds, and has called on the Government to make important vaccine funding decisions without delay.

Call for access to meningococcal vaccines for all young people

The Foundation’s call comes at a critical time for New Zealand, as the Foundation prepares to make an oral presentation to Parliament’s Health committee later in the month. In addition, Pharmac’s Pharmaceutical Therapeutics Advisory Committee will this month begin consultation for its funding options for the most common strains of meningococcal disease – the B and A, C, W, & Y strains.

In March 2022, the Meningitis Foundation presented a petition to Dr Shane Reti, National Spokesperson for Health, signed by 6,357 New Zealanders. The petition urges the Government to fund both meningococcal vaccines for the most common strains of meningococcal disease – the B and A, C, W, & Y strains – for all 16-year-olds before they leave school.

The Foundation is calling on Parliament to make two currently available vaccines, which cover the most common strains of meningococcal disease, free for all young people.

The Meningitis Foundation’s Gerard Rushton says that change is needed urgently.

Māori population at highest risk and being failed

Meningococcal disease affects between 100 and 200 Kiwis a year, with around 10-20% of those dying from the disease – typically within 24 hours of contracting it, says Rushton. But many more patients – up to 30% of those affected – suffer severe permanent impairment and disability including loss of limbs, hearing loss, learning difficulties, cerebral palsy and brain damage, says Rushton, who with his wife Claire lost their 16-year-old daughter Courtenay to the disease in 2014.

“It’s a disease that can progress very rapidly and if not detected and treated in time, doctors may be powerless to save the patient’s life,” says Rushton.

“The disease affects all ages, but 13-to-25-year-olds are particularly vulnerable, while Māori and Pasifika communities are also at high risk of catching the disease and not receiving timely treatment. In fact, Māori and Pasifika are 5 times more likely to contract meningitis than other ethnic groups, which is not good enough. The Government is failing these communities.”

From 1991–2007, a New Zealand-only strain of meningococcal B caused an epidemic, which particularly affected Māori and Pasifika infants and children. Māori were also significantly impacted by meningococcal outbreaks in Northland in 2012 and 2018.

“Meningitis vaccines can be administered safely alongside other vaccinations, including the flu and COVID-19 jabs, with no stand-down period.

“Pharmac has been given a $191 million increase to its budget over the next two years. Some of that funding must be directed towards protecting our children and our young people from this serious and invasive disease,” he says.

To 31 August this year, there have been a total of 47 cases of meningococcal disease (44 confirmed and 3 probable), including one death. Over half (53%) of the cases were in Māori and Pacific children aged under 5 years.

Pharmac changes pneumococcal vaccination

Pharmac has recently announced plans to give all babies access to a broader pneumococcal vaccine from December, as cases of the potentially deadly disease continue to surge. This access, says Rushton, should never have been removed in the first place, and raises wider questions around vaccine availability, and the importance of consistency in raising public awareness.

“There is a huge issue with changing the goal posts for what’s funded and what isn’t. It means people who are eligible for the vaccine may not be getting it recommended to them by healthcare professionals, and that puts more of our rangatahi at risk of dying – or living with the potentially severe long-term side-effects of this horrific disease each year. In the US state of Texas, the introduction of mandatory vaccination for tertiary students has shown a pattern of reduction in meningitis cases.”

Cost of care for meningitis survivors

Rushton says there are serious health, social and economic consequences associated with meningitis. For survivors, there can be significant consequences, including the need for the right support and aftercare to cope with physical and intellectual disabilities. Meningitis and neonatal sepsis are the world’s leading cause of severe intellectual disability, and meningitis is the leading infectious cause of severe hearing loss.

“For those who do survive, but are badly disabled by it, the cost of care over the rest of their lifetime can be enormous. But all that can be avoided by a simple set of vaccinations.”

One French study published in the Journal of Infection and Public Health in 2015 estimated the lifetime cost of care for a meningitis survivor at between €770k and €2.3 million (NZD 1.3 million to NZD 3.9 million).

“The cost of vaccination is approximately $450 per person, meaning that the lifetime cost of care for a single meningitis survivor could fund the vaccination of about 3,000 kiwi youths. It’s about their future, and it’s about Aotearoa New Zealand’s future,” says Rushton.

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