Calls for free vaccines in New Zealand amid rise in Meningococcal cases

Meningococcal cases among Kiwi teens and young adults have risen by 88 percent over the past year. 

That's led to growing calls to make vaccines free and readily available to all young people instead of just those in close-living situations.  

This time last year, Lauren Raper was heading off to university for the first time, but less than a month later her worst nightmare became a reality.  

"I just knew something was wrong and I needed to go to the hospital, and I'm just so lucky I did,' Raper said. 

Her mother, Lindsey Price, found out Lauren had been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and was fighting for her life in Christchurch Hospital. 

"Initially in shock, because Lauren was vaccinated," Price told Newshub. "What we didn't know at the time was there were two vaccinations." 

Lauren Raper was heading off to university when she was diagnosed with meningitis.
Lauren Raper was heading off to university when she was diagnosed with meningitis. Photo credit: Newshub

According to the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), she was one of 15 teenagers and young adults diagnosed last year. That's seven more than in 2022 and a jump of 88 percent. 

"Those ESR figures do not surprise the foundation at all. In fact, they mirror what we've been saying for a long time," Meningitis Foundation's Gerard Rushton said.  

Since 2021, the Meningitis Foundation has been fighting to make the Meningococcal B vaccine free and available to every student before they leave high school. 

At the moment it's only free for those entering close-living situations, such as halls of residence. 

"That criteria is far too narrow and as I said before it just protects one small facet of our community," Rushton said.  

And vaccine uptake figures obtained under the Offical Information Act, reflect that. 

In March last year, the jab became free for those aged 13 to 25 in close living conditions. 

In the six months prior, only 808 vaccines were administered. In the six months after, that jumped to more than 9600 - which was a good result. 

However, compare that to the increase for those under five, for whom it was free for all. 

In the six months prior 1336 vaccines were administered with a whopping 173,000 in the six months prior.  

"A vaccination programme to have every child protected by the time they are 16 is the only way forward for New Zealand and the present uptake of the scheme shows New Zealanders want that," Rushton stressed.  

Newshub asked Health Minister Dr Shane Reti what the likelihood of that would be. 

"That was a discussion that was considered by the select committee last year and that's still for further work and further reference," Dr Reti said. 

But as Raper discovered last year, Meningococcal is a disease that needs to be dealt with urgently.