Health officials hope a mass vaccination programme aimed at 44,000 people aged between 1 and 20 will prevent the spread of the deadly meningococcal C disease in Northland after two deaths in the past month.
Two Northlanders have died from meningococcal C disease - 1-year-old Jacob Whyte from Ruakaka and Ben Brown, from Whangarei - and four other people have been confirmed as having type C while two others had type B meningococcal.
Northland medical officer of health Clair Mills said the situation was now a community outbreak and the concern over the spread of the disease, and random nature - there are no known links between any of the cases - had prompted the mass vaccination campaign.
Dr Mills said the programme would target the highest risk group of those aged between 1 and 20, with the most at risk - high school children - the first to receive the free meningococcal C vaccination.
Those out-of-school-aged under 20 will be able to get the vaccine from their GP, or attend special clinics in their area, as soon as vaccine becomes available. The DHB will liaise with community groups, employers and tertiary institutions to get to that group.
"Initially, the programme will be offered to high school students in the highest risk areas progressively over the two weeks from September 26," Dr Mills said.
"With exams coming up it's important to get that group vaccinated before the exam season starts."
The first schools involved are Kamo High, Bream Bay College, Whangarei Boys' and Girls' High, Whangaroa College, Kerikeri High, Springbank, Northland College, Te Kura Kaupapa O Kaikohe, Okaihau College, Bay of Islands College, Taipa Area School, and Kaikohe Christian School.
Dr Mills said there are usually between 0-2 cases of type C per year in Northland, while in previous years meningococcal type B disease was the most common type in the region.
"The current situation is, therefore, consistent with a community outbreak. Following expert advice and in consultation with the Ministry of Health we have decided to launch a vaccination campaign to help control this outbreak and prevent more cases of disease," she said.
The DHB hoped to vaccinate about 35,000 of those in the 1-20 age group before December 16 and was optimistic it would reach this target. Dr Mills said the disease was serious and had major health implications and she did not think there would be widespread opposition to the vaccination campaign.
The DHB would not say how much the vaccination campaign would cost, or who was paying for it - the DHB or the Ministry of Health - with discussions between the two organisations over that issue ongoing.
Those outside the targeted age group could buy type C vaccinations from their doctor, but the immunisation campaign is likely to take up most of the country's available stock. Once new stock arrives from October 6 the campaign is expected to be offered to primary schools from the beginning of November.
"Vaccination offered through a school-based programme is the most effective way of ensuring that as many students as possible are protected against the disease," Dr Mills said.
The vaccination campaign will be launched with extensive media advertising, public relations, a poster campaign and widespread communication with schools, parents and caregivers, students, and health professionals in Northland.