No doubt the health authorities are surprised at the sudden upsurge of public interest in meningococcal disease.

New Zealand has suffered an epidemic of meningococcal B for 14 years and while the scourge has been noted in the news from time to time, it has never made the impact it is having now.

The reason is not hard to identify. It has little to do with the numbers who have succumbed to the infection and much to do with two well-publicised cases.

The parents of a baby who contracted the disease last month have taken the public into their confidence as they faced the terrible necessity to amputate the baby's limbs in an attempt to save her life.

That was followed by a distressingly similar case involving a nine-month-old boy. Such human insights mean more than any statistic.

Fortunately for the health authorities, the cases of Charlotte Cleverly-Bisman and Sakiusa "Junior" Uluvula coincide with the long-awaited release of a vaccine specially developed for the New Zealand strain of meningococcal B, and an immunisation campaign begins next week.

Seldom has a public health project received a more favourable launch. People, especially parents of young children, are clamouring for the vaccine.

Some, according to the Immunisation Advisory Centre, are so anxious they are offering to pay for it. Quite rightly, the programme administrators say the vaccine is not for sale and the first batch will go to the young in areas of highest risk.

But it does not sound as if the health authorities quite appreciate the opportunity presented to them.

They should be ordering more supplies of this vaccine as fast as the manufacturer can produce it. No subject stays in the forefront of public consciousness indefinitely.

And no immunisation campaign, no matter how safe and effective it is shown to be, proceeds without opposition these days. This particular vaccine comes with impeccable credentials.

It was carefully commissioned by the Ministry of Health working through the World Health Organisation to select a Californian manufacturer, Chiron Corporation, in association with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Even so, it would not take very much to arouse public resistance. It is true, as immunisation opponents point out, that while this disease is officially classified as an epidemic it is striking 0.009 per cent of the population each year.

Since the outbreak began in 1991 it has infected a total of not much more than 5400 people and killed just 220.

Those figures ought to tell most people there is no need to panic; their risk of infection is very low. But, of course, people do not assess risk on a population basis; they react as individuals and it is not much consolation to the unlucky individuals that they are 0.009 per cent of 4 million.

And if there is a reasonably safe vaccine available, it makes perfect sense for everybody to take that precaution if they can.

The immunisation programme should be taking this opportunity to secure maximum population coverage by making inoculations of children if not mandatory then almost automatic.

The parental consent forms that children will be bringing home from schools, beginning in South Auckland next week, invite parents to agree or not agree to their child's immunisation.

It should go one better and assume consent, requiring the parent or guardian opposed to vaccination to go to some trouble to object.

Why not simply ask questions about the child's health record and give a contact phone number for parents to register a wish that their child not be immunised?

People who put their personal beliefs before the greater interest of eradicating a deadly disease should be asked to go to some trouble to opt out.

This is bacteria that many carry with an apparently natural immunity but a few are susceptible and it can quickly leave them dead or maimed for life. The public is alert to its ravages as never before. The Health Ministry must seize the moment.

Herald Feature: Meningococcal Disease

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