WHO gives meningitis jab high priority

By Martin Johnston

The case for state funding of an expensive new meningitis vaccine has been strengthened by the World Health Organisation calling it a priority.

The WHO says in its latest Weekly Epidemiological Record that it should be a priority to include the vaccine, Prevenar, in immunisation schedules.

Prevenar is for children. It is designed to protect against seven major strains of the bacteria which can cause pneumococcal disease.

The bug causes about 150 cases a year of pneumococcal meningitis and/or blood poisoning in New Zealand children under 5. Of them about 25 die and 35 are left with disabilities like cerebral palsy.

Pneumococcal disease particularly affects children, the elderly and those with a weakened immune system.

The WHO says that in young children, the vaccine's protection against the seven strains "may exceed 90 per cent", adding that the vaccine is "well tolerated and has a good safety profile".

Prevenar is currently funded only for children at high risk of the disease because of other health conditions or immune-weakening treatments.

The Meningitis Trust has been campaigning for widened state funding and last year Nicole Edgerton, whose 5-week-old baby Presley died of the disease, joined a protest at Parliament to support the cause.

Trust general manager Fiona Colbert yesterday welcomed the WHO's support for Prevenar to fight what she has called a "deadly and devastating disease".

"This just reinforces that it's needed in New Zealand."

She said parents paid between $400 and $550 for the injections, depending on the GP. But the trust was "quietly optimistic" that the Government would put Prevenar on the childhood immunisation schedule.

"We are getting positive noises. Obviously we are collaborating with the Ministry of Health."

The ministry, however, is keeping under wraps any decision on which of four proposed vaccines will be added to the schedule next year - until the Budget is announced in May.

"Prevenar would be the first priority," said Dr Nikki Turner, director of Auckland University's Immunisation Advisory Centre, "in terms of burden of disease and effectiveness of the vaccine."

Next would be Gardasil, designed to protect against two human papilloma virus strains linked to cervical cancer and two linked with genital warts, and a new measles-mumps-rubella vaccine which also targets chickenpox. Last would be one against rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhoea in children.

The advisory centre says Prevenar provides a high level of protection against pneumococcal meningitis and blood poisoning, and some protection against pneumonia caused by the bug.

Dr Turner said that as well as protecting children who received the vaccine, its use in the US had led to a "dramatic" reduction in pneumococcal disease among the elderly.

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