Northland meningococcal outbreak: Ministry of Health missed 7 'red flags'

National has accused the Ministry of Health of not responding quickly enough to the Meningococcal W (MenW) Northland outbreak.

Whangarei MP Dr Shane Reti put questions to Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield during a grilling by MPs at Select Committee on Wednesday. He asked why the Ministry of Health missed "seven red flags" in May before taking action on MenW in November.

The Northland District Health Board (DHB) issued advice about identifying meningococcal symptoms after a teenager died of the disease in October. A vaccination campaign was launched by the Ministry of Health in November, but Dr Reti says it wasn't soon enough.

He said the DHB asked for a vaccination response in May, but the Ministry of Health Technical Advisory Group didn't confirm that the numbers of MenW in Northland met the criteria for a vaccination campaign until November 8. 

"I think there was a meningitis outbreak in May and there were certainly a number of glaring red flags [suggesting] a meningococcal disease flare-up in May, and there were seven of them," said Dr Reti on Wednesday.

Dr Reti's 7 'red flags'

Northland meningococcal outbreak: Ministry of Health missed 7 'red flags'
  1. There were "clearly increasing cases" of meningococcal right from the beginning of the year - almost a doubling
  2. In April there were 50 percent more new cases of MenW and by May there were 100 percent more
  3. From April public health monthly surveillance data was regularly appearing on the front page of newspapers
  4. It's now known that a Northland DHB clinician expressed concerns to staff about meningococcal
  5. The Northland DHB requested a vaccination campaign in May
  6. A clinician at the regional GP conference in Russell presented on the disease and listed concerns in May
  7. The ministry's "own immunisation update under the heading 'meningococcal disease'

"I'm contending there were seven glaring red flags in May and that your ministry took the eye off the ball," said Dr Reti.

Mr Bloomfield disputed the claim, "I don't think the ministry took its eye off the ball."

"What I can say is that as soon as we had advice that was confirmed by a special technical advisory group that there was a community outbreak in Northland, we took very quick action," said Mr Bloomfield.

"As soon as I got the advice, I read it in full and I signed it off immediately to move to a vaccination campaign."

He said funding was not an issue, and that the question was about whether or not a community vaccination campaign was required. The low global supply of vaccinations was also something the ministry had to consider.

"Because this outbreak is worldwide there is a very limited supply of the vaccine and that's been one of the challenges securing and supplying." 

He said a total of 22,000 vaccinations are needed to immunise the two groups of youth aged from nine months to less than five years and those aged 13 to under 20 years who are Northland residents.

New Zealand purchased 20,000 vaccination doses that are available immediately in Northland and the doses have been given to the most vulnerable.

Mr Bloomfield said another 5000 vaccinations have been confirmed to cover the 22,000 vaccinations required, and the remaining 3000 vaccinations can be saved for emerging cases around the country.

The Government's drug-buying agency, Pharmac, confirmed on Wednesday it had received an additional 5000 doses of the vaccine, which brings the total stock available for Northland's targeted three-week vaccination programme to exactly 25,650 doses.

Northland DHB's Jeanette Wedding said the aim of the campaign is to "build our population's immunity and we can achieve this by ensuring that all of the eligible children are offered the vaccine over the next three weeks".

The vaccination programme runs until 21 December.