Measles vaccine campaign miles off target amid concern COVID-19 is overshadowing it

By Rowan Quinn for RNZ

A vaccination campaign to prevent another dangerous measles epidemic has reached only a small fraction of its target as district health boards (DHBs) struggle in the wake of COVID-19.

The government launched a campaign in July to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of 15 to 30 year olds who were not properly immunised as children, and who leave the country vulnerable to another outbreak.

But halfway through the year long campaign, only about 3 percent of them have had a jab.

Many district health boards said they were struggling in the face of COVID commitments, with some reaching fewer than 100 young people since July.

Immunologist Nikki Turner said it was unlikely the target would be met and that was disappointing and frustrating.

"A lot of the health sector are working very hard on COVID but I'm really concerned that we lose sight of measles in the middle of all this," she said.

More than 2000 people caught measles in the 2019 outbreak, nearly twice as many as the first COVID outbreak, and it was likely New Zealand exported the measles to Samoa where 83 people died.

The gap had to be plugged to prevent another outbreak, Dr Turner said.

Figures varied from DHB to DHB but all fell well short.

Whanganui, was doing better than most, vaccinating 15 percent of those it needed to reach, but it was still struggling

"Small DHBs like Whanganui have a limited workforce and many vaccinators are also involved in working at CBACs [COVID testing centres], contact tracing, etc," a spokesperson said.

The exact figures are hard to pin down.

Experts initially estimated more than 300,000 needed to be vaccinated.

Health Minister Andrew Little said yesterday the Ministry of Health was trying to reach 230,000.

Between 6500 and 7500 had been immunised since the campaign began.

It was too early to say whether the government would fail to meet its target, he said.

Vaccination rates had increased in the past few weeks because more promotions were underway, he said.

"It is going to be challenging and it not helped by the fact that we have the COVID-19 vaccination roll out at the same time and that is certainly taking a lot of attention and energy," he said.

Clinical vaccinologist Maia Brewerton said it was crucial the gap was closed because measles was eight times more contagious than COVID and was only a plane ride away from New Zealand.

"It's easy for people to forget sometimes that measles is life threatening and one in ten people will need hospital treatment and I think we learned in 2019 how catastrophic it can be," she said.