By MARTIN JOHNSTON
The long-awaited mass vaccination against deadly meningococcal disease is set to start in 11 days after the Government yesterday announced its provisional licensing of the vaccine.
Infants in South Auckland and East Auckland suburbs at high risk from the disease will be the first to be injected with the vaccine, followed by schoolchildren from August 2.
After nurses and GPs have begun in Auckland, the 18-month, $200 million campaign aimed at vaccinating 90 per cent of those under 20 will move progressively from Northland down to Wellington, then from Southland up to Nelson.
Health Minister Annette King said yesterday: "We've now got the ability for mass vaccination of 1.15 million young people with the meningococcal B vaccine.
"This is fantastic news and we've been waiting a long time for this."
She believed it would be New Zealand's largest mass vaccination campaign.
A meningococcal disease epidemic has gripped the country since 1991, making more than 5400 people sick and killing 220. A fifth of those who catch the disease suffer serious disabilities, such as limb amputations or brain damage.
The parents of 7-month-old Charlotte Cleverley-Bisman - whose lower legs and lower arms were amputated at Starship hospital last week after she contracted the disease - yesterday welcomed the vaccine licensing.
"We're both very pleased it has finally been licensed," Perry Bisman said. "We hope that our story has touched some people's hearts and made them realise the urgent need to get vaccinated because it's such a devastating disease."
He said Charlotte's doctors had now discovered a bone infection and she might need to have more amputated from both an arm and a leg.
New Zealand has encountered long delays in obtaining a vaccine because most cases in its epidemic are caused by a specific strain of the group B meningococcal bacterium for which no vaccine existed.
The one approved yesterday is made in Italy by the Chiron Corporation and is a modified version of a B group vaccine that proved effective against a 1980s epidemic in Norway.
Fears arose last month that some doses of the new vaccine might have to be dumped because licensing delays meant it might not be able to be used before an October 31 expiry date.
But the Ministry of Health yesterday dispelled these concerns.
"The expiry date under the licence that we've been granted has been extended 18 months, so there isn't an issue of this vaccine expiring," said the deputy director-general (public health), Dr Don Matheson.
"We will use all those vaccines comfortably."
The ministry's meningococcal vaccine strategy director, Dr Jane O'Hallahan, said clinical trials in Auckland had shown the vaccine "produces what we believe are protective antibodies at a level we hadn't expected".
The ministry's medicines safety authority, Medsafe, has approved the vaccine as safe and effective for those aged 6 months to 20 years.
The vaccine's backers intend this to be extended lower, to 6 weeks of age, but the clinical trials on which any decision would be based are yet to be published.
Also, the licence is provisional because Medsafe wants more information from Chiron, mainly about manufacturing processes, before issuing a full licence.
"None of the data that's been asked for is regarded as being risk-critical," said Medsafe's principal technical specialist, Dr Stewart Jessamine.
* Mass vaccination of under-20s over next 18 months.
* Campaign will begin in high-risk suburbs of South and East Auckland and gradually be broadened.
* From July 19, children under 5 in those suburbs will start to be recalled to health clinics for vaccination injections to be offered.
* From the same day, forms and leaflets will be sent home with schoolchildren, seeking vaccination consent.
* First schoolchildren will receive injections on August 2.
* Those under 20 in Greater Auckland and not at school will be offered vaccination from next February.