World Meningitis Day highlights urgent need for widespread vaccination of youth

Meningitis Foundation urges rangatahi to get vaccinated as part of Foundation’s goal to eliminate meningococcal disease in New Zealand

The Meningitis Foundation Aotearoa New Zealand is using World Meningitis Day today (Thursday 5 October) to call on all those who are eligible for free meningococcal B and ACW&Y vaccines to get vaccinated immediately.

The Foundation’s call comes at a critical time for New Zealand, as many of those eligible – secondary students – prepare to finish school and embark on their first year of tertiary education. This group, says the Meningitis Foundation’s chair, Gerard Rushton, can get vaccinated up to three months before they enter a close-living situation such as a Hall of Residence, and should get both their meningococcal vaccinations as soon as they are able.

Gerard Rushton emphasises the urgency of understanding the seriousness of the disease, noting that there is limited time for some young people to receive their vaccination. A catch-up vaccination programme for rangatahi aged 13 to 25 years old living in close-living situations for meningococcal B vaccines is due to expire on 28 February 2024. All children under 5 years old can catch up for free until 31 August 2025. The catch-up programme (2 doses) applies to all rangatahi aged 13 to 25 years old who are currently living in a close living situation, not just those in or entering their first year, and Gerard Rushton stressed the importance of getting vaccinated with both doses as soon as possible.

"Meningitis is merciless. It strikes swiftly, often with flu- or hangover-like symptoms that can escalate rapidly into severe illness. The consequences can be life-altering, including brain damage, hearing loss, limb amputations, and tragically, loss of life."

To 31 August this year, there have been a total of 44 cases of meningococcal disease, including one death in the Wellington region in May. In total, 53% of the cases reported were in Māori and Pacific peoples, while 32% of cases were in those aged between 15 and 24. Group B accounted for 80% of all cases.

“We have already seen one death this year, and that is one death too many. Most people aren’t aware there are vaccines available, and even fewer are aware they are eligible for both the free vaccines. If we want to eliminate meningitis in New Zealand, we need to prioritise vaccination urgently,” says Gerard.

University of Otago epidemiologist Associate Prof Amanda Kvalsvig published a report earlier this year highlighting that eliminating meningococcal disease from New Zealand may soon be an achievable goal. She believes that by combining our existing public health infrastructure with increased funding and wider availability of meningococcal vaccines, we can make huge strides towards eliminating this disease from our communities.

“Eliminating meningococcal disease in New Zealand appears both desirable and feasible. The recent changes to expand vaccine funding in March of this year were a positive step. But if we want to eliminate this disease in New Zealand, we must broaden our approach,” she says.

“This could be achieved by making funded vaccines more widely available, and by making sure that vaccination programmes are working well for at-risk communities like university and secondary students, and Māori and Pacific communities. Looking beyond those immediate steps, a truly strategic approach will include a range of other treatment and prevention options as well as vaccines.”

Meningitis is contagious and can spread through close contact, making prevention a critical component of public health efforts. Vaccination programs have made significant strides in reducing the incidence of some forms of meningitis, but challenges such as access to vaccines and increasing vaccine hesitancy remain. Gerard Rushton underscores that prevention is the best defence against meningitis.

“Vaccination is a powerful tool in our arsenal, but we must also promote awareness and education to recognise the early symptoms of disease. Timely diagnosis and treatment can make the difference between life and death. Every second counts in treating this deadly disease,” he says.

Who is eligible for free vaccination?

There are different types of meningococcal bacteria, including A, B, C, W, and Y. In New Zealand, most meningococcal disease is caused by group B bacteria. There are two vaccines available in New Zealand, one to protect against meningococcal ACW&Y, and another for meningococcal B.

Rangatahi aged 13 to 25 years who are entering into, or in their first year of certain close-living situations, can get a free meningococcal A, C, W, and Y (MenACWY) vaccine. Close-living situations include boarding schools, hostels, halls of residence, military barracks, and prisons.

On 1 March 2023, the meningococcal B (MenB) vaccine was added to the National Immunisation Schedule for babies at 3 months, 5 months, and 12 months old. A meningococcal B vaccine catch-up programme for rangatahi aged 13 to 25 years old already living in close-living situations is 28 February 2024. Group B accounts for 80% of cases to date in 2023.

Urgent requirement to vaccinate all young people

The Meningitis Foundation has called on the Government to fund both meningococcal vaccines for the most common strains of meningococcal disease – the B and the A, C, W, & Y strains – for all 16-year-olds before they leave school.

In March 2022, the Meningitis Foundation presented a petition to Dr Shane Reti, National Spokesperson for Health, signed by 6,357 New Zealanders, which was then presented to the Health Select Committee for consideration.

The Health Committee’s final report on the petition urged government agencies to prioritise better public health campaigns to improve access to the vaccines, and highlighted its concern about the apparently low level of awareness of the disease among health practitioners, including reports that the vaccine is not a priority or is not needed.

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