Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Thousands wait for vaccine

Newborn Tessa Menezes with mother Natasha and sisters Caitlin, 2, and Olivia, 6, has had to wait. Photo / Supplied
Newborn Tessa Menezes with mother Natasha and sisters Caitlin, 2, and Olivia, 6, has had to wait. Photo / Supplied

Thousands of at-risk babies have been left unvaccinated for tuberculosis following a worldwide vaccine shortage that is expected to continue.

Bacillus Calmette Guerin (BCG) is used in New Zealand to vaccinate babies considered to be at a higher risk of tuberculosis infection.

The vaccination is not part of the usual vaccination schedule. It is made available only to babies living with those previously infected, or those travelling to, or in close contact with people coming from countries where the disease is prevalent.

Pharmac director of operations Sarah Fitt told the New Zealand Herald last week between 2500 and 3000 New Zealand babies were waiting to receive the vaccine, but help was on the way.

Five thousand doses had arrived in New Zealand on March 4 and it was believed this would be enough to vaccinate those waiting.

The government drug-buying agency was working closely with distributors and vaccinators to make sure the vaccine was distributed appropriately, Ms Fitt said.

It was also working with the New Zealand distributor of the vaccine, Seqirus, regarding the longer term supply.

"There is currently an international shortage of the BCG vaccine ... the shortage has been caused by production issues at the State Serum Institute manufacturing plant in Denmark" Ms Fitt said.

"There is no confirmed date for further vaccine stock to arrive in New Zealand. Pharmac, Seqirus and the Ministry of Health are keeping vaccinators up to date with the supply situation."

The shortage only affected the BCG vaccine for tuberculosis, not the BCG vaccine used in the treatment of urological cancer, she said.

Mt Albert woman Natasha Menezes told the Herald her 3-week-old daughter, Tessa, was one of those affected by the shortage.

Her two older daughters had been vaccinated against tuberculosis before leaving hospital, but she had struggled to secure the same outcome for Tessa.

The family is considered at risk because family from their native India, where there is a higher infection rate for tuberculosis, are frequent visitors.

It had been a worrying start to her baby's life, Mrs Menezes said.

"If she gives a little cough I wonder if everything is okay."

She had struggled to get an answer from the Auckland Regional Public Health Service as to when Tessa could be vaccinated but, following Herald inquiries, was told last week her daughter was booked in to get the vaccine shortly.

Auckland Regional Public Health Service medical officer of health Dr Cathy Pikholz said staff were working to vaccinate as many on the waiting list as possible, with vaccinations starting on March 14 and continuing until the vaccine batch expired at the end of May.

She asked parents to be patient and wait for the service's vaccination team to contact them for an appointment.

"Our vaccination team have a small window of opportunity to work through a large backlog of vaccinations.

"We have opened additional clinics to allow us to schedule the maximum number of vaccinations our team can handle.

"Our first priority has to be the most vulnerable babies, which are those who have been in contact with an individual who has had tuberculosis."

The distributor was not able to say when new stocks of the vaccine would be available again in New Zealand, she said.

"It is likely the worldwide shortage will continue."

Tuberculosis

• About 300 people are diagnosed in NZ each year. Symptoms include a cough lasting three weeks or more, often with thick phlegm, night sweats, weight loss, swollen glands and tiredness.

• It is treated for six months with antibiotics. Infection can be serious for older people.

• Spread through coughing, sneezing or spitting.

• Tuberculosis can be latent in someone's body for many years before it develops.

Source: Ministry of Health

- NZ Herald

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