A broken-hearted mother who lost her daughter to meningococcal disease says the Government's immunisation plan to fight the outbreak is bittersweet.
Starting next week the Government is launching an urgent emergency vaccine programme to fight a new strain of the disease in Northland.
The new strain, MenW, has resulted in the deaths of six people nationwide in the past year, three of those occurring in the Northland region.
One of those, Alexis Albert, died in July after the disease took control of her body and killed her six days after she celebrated her seventh birthday.
Her mother Rowshae Albert told the Herald yesterday the Government's announcement was welcoming news but gut-wrenching following Alexis' death.
"I was actually quite hurt hearing that [the Government] are actually taking this seriously," she said.
"It has been going in the back of my mind, why didn't the Government or the health officials announce this actually during the winter season where it started peaking?
"I can't turn back time, I can only look at the positives and they're actually doing something about it and now other families can do something about it."
The vaccination will start on December 5 at selected high schools and community centres across Northland.
Health Minister David Clark said meningococcal disease was a terrible illness which had impacted our country before.
"In the last few weeks, Pharmac and the Ministry of Health have sourced 20,000 doses of the vaccine which covers the meningococcal W-strain, as well as strains A, C and Y," he said yesterday.
"The advice from clinical experts is that MenW has reached outbreak levels in Northland and we should urgently launch an immunisation programme to prevent further spread of the disease."
The vaccination will target people aged nine months to four years (inclusive), and those aged 13 to 19 years (inclusive).
They would not have to pay for the vaccine, but to be eligible they would have to be a Northland resident.
The cost was commercially sensitive, but it would cost $700,000 to roll out the vaccination programme.
Director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said people had died from MenW as young as 11 months and as old as 61 years, but teenagers were the highest carriers of the disease, and under-fives were at the highest risk.
"The best way to protect all age groups is stop the carriage of the bacterium," Bloomfield said.
"If we get advice that we need to roll it out further, we will be looking closely at that advice."
He said people could not be compelled to be immunised but he hoped that 80 per cent of people in the target groups would be vaccinated, which would stop it being carried.
Northland was advised on November 6 about the possibility of an outbreak, and a technical advisory group reported two days later that there was, in fact, an outbreak.
Bloomfield defended the time it took to respond, saying it took time to secure 20,000 doses - as both Australia and the US were already dealing with outbreaks - and to put in place the programme.
Despite the Government's announcement, questions were being raised about why a response had taken so long.
A Northland District Health Board microbiologist first warned the Northland DHB of the dangerous strain in May this year and the Ministry of Health received advice on November 8 there was an outbreak in the region.
However, Albert said she was pleased something was being done about the disease which had already impacted many this year.
"I'm actually quite overwhelmed and rapt that families out there get to have that protection for their family," she said.
"Not everybody agrees with vaccines but in regards to this new strain out there, I feel like people need to think seriously and seek medical help.
"The children up here are vulnerable and the disease is very real. I wholeheartedly feel parents need to consider the precautions and do what they feel is best for their child."
The location of the clinics would be confirmed as soon as possible, he said.
Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that causes meningitis - an infection of the membranes that covers the brain - and septicaemia, or blood poisoning.
While meningococcal B (MenB) had long been the dominant strain in New Zealand, causing two thirds of cases of the disease, there were growing concerns over the rise of MenW.
Medical experts said MenW could present differently to other strains, including severe respiratory tract infection such as pneumonia and, more so in adults, gastrointestinal symptoms.
Meningococcal bacteria were difficult to catch because they didn't live for long outside of the body but were passed from one person to another through secretions from the nose or throat.
Within three to seven days after being exposed to the bacteria, meningococcal disease was typically first felt by the onset of a sudden high fever and was easily mistaken for other common flus and illnesses.