There are a number of vaccination issues that are topical for Northland at the moment including the current measles outbreak, meningitis W and falling vaccination rates generally. Let's look at these individually.
A recent article headlined that the current measles outbreak is the worst in a decade. I worked as a local GP through the 1997 measles outbreak and can recall overflowing waiting rooms full of ill children with the recognisable red rash.
If measles was just a temperature and a rash then why the concern? But we need to remember that a third of children with measles will get a complication such as pneumonia, 10 per cent will be hospitalised and one to three out of a thousand will actually die from measles. This is a serious condition.
Meningitis is another serious condition and this time last year Northland was in the early stages of a meningitis W outbreak in which three children died. Later in the year a vaccination campaign was started with Pharmac saying there weren't enough vaccines for everyone and so only older teenagers and young children could be vaccinated.
Five to 12 year olds missed out. We now know there were enough vaccines but Pharmac didn't tell anyone and I am now working to have Pharmac release the thousands of expensive meningitis vaccines that are expiring in a warehouse. Surely these can be released to the Northland children who missed out?
Earlier this week, local media reported concerns for a sharp drop in vaccination rates for Northland children. This is a challenge which needs some solutions. Is the dropping of health targets by the government a factor? Do we have the right policy settings that encourage parents and providers to come together at the right time and the right place to make informed vaccination decisions?
The chief executive of the Northland District Health Board told the select committee last year that the anti-vax lobby has had a definite influence on vaccination rates. I try to keep an open mind and at their request I have met with anti-vax proponents in my office. I respect their right to a view but I fundamentally disagree with it. Their position is not my observation of 30 years of medicine and my assessment of the science.
Some Australian states are forceful around childhood vaccination. Our education policies say that during an outbreak unimmunised children can be asked to be kept at home, but in Australia some children cannot even start school if they are not fully immunised - what is colloquially known as no jab - no play. This has been expanded in some states to a reduction in state benefits for parents with unimmunised children, known as no jab – no pay.
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My view is that I would much rather do a better job with education and informed consent than punitive actions against families but if vaccination rates continue to fall then we will clearly need to do more.
• Dr Shane Reti is Member of Parliament for Whangārei.