For a population to be considered fully immune to an illness, 95 per cent of the population should be immunised. So why is the immunisation rate nationally well below that number, and even further below it on a local level? The Ministry of Health has recognised an 'urgent need' to address falling vaccination rates. Zizi Sparks looks at just how much the immunisation rate has dropped and why.
Immunisation rates for 6-month-old babies in the Lakes District Health Board area stand among the worst in the country.
The DHB area ranked fifth-worst in vaccination statistics with just 69.8 per cent of babies that age vaccinated on time compared with 77 per cent nationally and down from 86.8 per cent in 2015.
Coverage of 95 per cent is needed for population immunity.
A Ministry of Health report from May about declining childhood immunisation rates showed rates started to decrease in early 2017.
"This decrease is primarily driven by a reduction in Māori immunisation rates," the report said.
"The reasons for the decrease in immunisation coverage for Maori children are complex and multi-factorial and vary from region to region."
The Midlands region, which Lakes DHB is part of, was identified as an area where Māori immunisation rates were of greatest concern.
For Māori babies in the DHB, vaccination rates fell from 83.1 per cent in 2015, down to 58.9 per cent in 2019.
The data also indicated that deprivation played a part.
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Dr Phil Shoemack, medical officer of health for Toi Te Ora Public Health, said the figures weren't a surprise.
"Over the years Bay of Plenty and Lakes District Health Boards have often popped up as being two that have the greatest challenges achieving and maintaining good immunisation rates."
Shoemack said there were a number of reasons for that, including issues around access to services, poverty, resources and a transient population.
"Bay of Plenty and Lakes tend to be less well connected with the health system or the other way around, our system is less well connected with the population.
"The thing with poverty is people who are struggling, other things are prioritised. Trying to make sure you have a roof over your family's head or putting food on the table is much more important and a daily struggle. It means immunisation is low down on the list of priorities."
Shoemack said it was a constant challenge to do better.
Immunisation Advisory Centre director Dr Nikki Turner said people had got "a bit carried away" with the impact of anti-vax.
"Vaccine hesitancy has always been with us in New Zealand. That isn't changing. What is changing is our society, how hard it is for families to access care, and the impact of poverty."
The Ministry of Health said it had recognised an "urgent need" to address falling vaccination rates. In March it launched a campaign aimed at Māori and Pacific families, and in April it wrote to Minister of Health David Clark saying it would investigate why rates were falling.
In May, it wrote again with its findings, identifying seven possible reasons Māori families, in particular, were not vaccinating, from socioeconomic barriers to vaccine hesitancy.
It did not know which factor was having the greatest impact and said more work was needed.
"The barriers to immunisation are complex and multi-factorial ... and are likely part of a larger picture indicating a growing systemic issue with inequity in health services," it said.
Rotorua midwife Frances Kissling said they recommended vaccinations take place six weeks after a child's birth but they could also vaccinate against whooping cough and influenza before birth.
"With the whooping cough babies die. That's the reality.
"I'm pro-vaccine but we're also pro-choice. We are here to give information and people make their own decisions."
The Lakes District Health Board was approached for comment.
Lakes DHB vaccination rates, December 2015 vs March 2019
• Asian: 92.3 per cent in 2015, up to 95.7 per cent in 2019
• Māori: 83.1 per cent in 2015, down to 58.9 per cent in 2019
• New Zealand European: 90 per cent in 2015, down to 74.5 per cent in 2019
• Pacific: 87.5 per cent in 2015, down to 75 per cent in 2019
• Other: 96.2 per cent in 2015, down to 80 per cent in 2019
• Total: 86.8 per cent in 2015, down to 69.8 per cent in 2019
Source: Ministry of Health
- Additional reporting New Zealand Herald