Thousands of parents and children have been queuing at vaccination stations around Northland as a mass immunisation programme against a deadly strain of meningococcal disease gets under way.

At Whangārei Girls' High School yesterday, the line of patients, parents, some fractious toddlers and bored teens snaked from one classroom block to another, past the administration block and out the gate.

By 3pm, Northland District Health Board was posting messages on social media asking people who intended coming later not to, as there were so many people still waiting in line.

The posts also advised people planning to come on other days to bring water and sunscreen.

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The DHB hoped to vaccinate more than 22,000 children and teenagers aged under 5 and 13 to 19 during the next three weeks.

The vaccination programme was in response to an outbreak of the W strain of meningococcal disease (MenW), which has so far led to seven cases in Northland and three deaths.

As well as Whangārei Girls' High, vaccination stations have been set up at Kaitaia Hospital and Kerikeri High — the school attended by popular 16-year-old Dion Hodder, who died in October after falling ill with MenW at a St John youth camp.

Jabs were also being offered at clinics in Hokianga, Bream Bay and Oakura, and next week in Kawakawa, Kaikohe, Kaeo and Dargaville.

So far mass vaccination was only being carried out in Northland, where the MenW rate — 5.7 cases per 100,000 people — was more than double anywhere else in the country.

Fifty DHB staff, many of them hired especially, were working at the sites open so far.

Retired paediatrician Roger Tuck at Kerikeri High School, where mass vaccination against a deadly strain of meningococcal disease started yesterday. Photo / John Stone
Retired paediatrician Roger Tuck at Kerikeri High School, where mass vaccination against a deadly strain of meningococcal disease started yesterday. Photo / John Stone

Retired paediatrician Roger Tuck, who was among those called in to help, said the jab wasn't being offered to all under-20s because of a worldwide shortage of the MenW vaccine.

Under-5s were most vulnerable to the disease, while 13-19-year-olds were most likely to carry and spread the meningococcal bacteria.

''If we had an unlimited supply we might be vaccinating the middle group as well. It's not a cost issue, it's how can we best protect the children of Northland with the number of doses we've got?''

Children aged 5 to 12 would get some protection from the vaccination of other age groups.

Whether the programme would be extended to all under-20s would depend on whether the current campaign was enough to dampen down the disease.

The Ministry would keep a close eye on the number of cases and act accordingly, Tuck said.

Just yesterday, Pharmac announced it had managed to procure another 5000 doses, bringing the total number in the country or on the way to 25,650.

Parents who brought their children to Kerikeri High yesterday included Hannah Flintoff, whose 2-year-old got the jab ''like a champ, without a single tear''.

''She does a lot of activities — daycare, soccer, swimming — so if there's an outbreak, she's at risk,'' Flintoff said.

At Whangārei Girls' High, one mum had arrived with two pre-schoolers at 10.45am and was still about 10 people away from her children's turn at 1pm.

Another woman waiting with her 13-year-old daughter said she had paid for her two older children to get the vaccine from their GP because they were above the 19-year-old cut-off point for the inoculation programme.

Meanwhile, Whangārei MP and former GP Shane Reti has accused the Health Ministry of taking its eye off the ball over Northland's MenW outbreak.

Reti told a Health Select Committee meeting yesterday that the ministry had missed seven "red flags" as early as May which should have prompted officials to take action sooner.

Northland DHB chief executive Nick Chamberlain told the committee the DHB had been pushing for a vaccination campaign since May but had to wait until the disease reached outbreak status, which occurred at the end of October.

Once that happened the decision to start a vaccination campaign was made "reasonably quickly", he said.

Tuck urged parents who were unsure about vaccination to talk to their GPs and read as much as they could, for example at www.immune.org.nz.

''As a parent you have to weigh up the risks. The evidence tells us the risk of these vaccinations is minimal, and because there is a risk of this disease in this community at this moment we think the risks of the disease hugely outweigh the risks of vaccination.''

Tuck said the MenW strain had been around for a long time.

''Why it's now rearing its head now in various parts of the world and becoming more aggressive is anyone's guess.''

■ Go to www.northlanddhb.org.nz for a full list of vaccination times and locations. Whangārei Girls' High is open seven days week until December 16. Children have to be at least nine months old to get the MenW vaccine.