A drop in infant immunisation rates during the Covid-19 lockdown has health workers scrambling to catch up. They fear "fake news" about vaccinations during the election campaign could add to the problem.
The rate of vaccination among 6 month olds dropped 2.4 per cent to 76.2 per cent in the April to June quarter, which captured most of the level 4 lockdown and gradual lowering of restrictions, compared to the same time last year.
The latest Ministry of Health data showed there was also a 4.4 per cent drop in those with the greatest socio-economic deprivation and a 5.6 per cent decline in Maori infants.
Babies under 6 months are vaccinated against rotavirus, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, hepatitis B, haemophilus influenzae type B and pneumococcal.
The figures also showed a drop of 2.4 per cent overall in the 18-month immunisation rate.
Auckland University professor and director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre Dr Nikki Turner said much of the drop would have been because of concerns and confusion about venturing out during the peak of the pandemic in New Zealand.
Outreach immunisation services, which catered to people who had difficulty accessing vaccinations through a general practice, also stopped for a couple of weeks during lockdown, which would have further reduced numbers, she said.
Health professionals were now working hard to get those who missed getting their scheduled immunisations caught up so the decline did not flow on to the coming months and years.
"The country's very distracted by Covid," she said. "We can't lose sight of the importance of getting our infant vaccines on time. We don't want to see measles coming back."
Turner said the decline was far more severe in other countries so it was more important than ever that New Zealanders were protected when borders opened up again.
"Measles is only a flight away," she said.
The first measles vaccination was now scheduled to take place when children were 12 months old but for infants the most important vaccine was for pertussis. Also known as whooping cough, it is a common, highly contagious and potentially deadly childhood illness.
"We do not want to delay the start of the immunisation programme for young infants and the major risk is whooping cough. So it's important to start at six weeks and make sure they get the first three doses on time; six weeks, three months and five months."
Turner also feared anti-vaccine messaging on social media from Advance New Zealand co-leader Billy Te Kahika had made the situation worse, although evidence of that would not be seen until data for the July to September data was collated.
"I do think the community dialogue and particularly messaging through social media accentuates people's fears," she said. "Groups that spread it through social media amplify those fears."
Ministry of Health data also showed babies under the age of 6 months who lived in the Northland, Tairawhiti and Lakes district health board areas were least likely to be vaccinated with rates up to 16 per cent lower than the national average.
Turner said some communities had "greater concerns and greater fears" than others when it came to immunisations and it was important for health professionals to keep talking with them about it.