Meningococcal vaccines to be flown in to Northland for urgent immunisation programme

From December, children and teenagers in Northland will be vaccinated to counter a dangerous meningococcal outbreak in the region.

Health Minister Dr David Clark announced on Monday that clinical experts have advised launching a targeted immunisation programme to prevent the W strain from spreading further.

Vaccines are being flown in from overseas, and the first batch of 10,000 doses - covering the A, C, W and Y strains - will arrive in New Zealand next week. Another 10,000 will follow a few weeks later.

The three-week programme will include free vaccinations for children between nine months and four years of age, as well as teenagers. Immunisation clinics will be set up in selected high schools and community centres across Northland.

"Research shows that vaccinating these two age groups is the best way to reduce the spread of meningococcal disease across the entire Northland community," Dr Clark says.

"This helps to protect everybody, even if they don't qualify for the free vaccination."

It's not an ideal time to roll out a comprehensive vaccination programme, as the school year is almost over and soon students will be on their summer holiday.

Dr Clark acknowledges it will be "challenging" to immunise as many young people as possible, but says the stakes are too high not to try.

"It is important that we begin this work as soon as possible to contain this deadly disease in Northland."

He congratulated Pharmac and the Ministry of Health on sourcing 20,000 doses of the W vaccine, which is in short supply due to international demand.

They'll continue to investigate the possibility of importing more doses into the country as a contingency plan in case a wider vaccination programme is recommended.

The MenW strain is considered to have a high mortality rate, and has killed three people in Northland this year. So far, 29 people have contracted the W strain across New Zealand in 2018 - twice last year's number. Seven of those cases were in Northland.

In early November, Stuff reported that Northland DHB was made aware of the meningitis strain six months before it warned the public about it.