Urgent action needed to address child immunisation crisis, experts say
Pasifika communities work together at South Auckland vaccination sites to boost immunisation rates.
Low rates of immunisations for preventable and life-threatening childhood diseases like measles and whooping cough are concerning health experts.
The Paediatric Society of New Zealand (PSNZ) and Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) say urgent action is needed to reduce the risk to pēpi and the workload on an overstretched health workforce.
They want the Ministry of Health and Te Whatu Ora to redirect Covid-19 resources towards equitable childhood vaccinations to address the crisis.
Paediatric Society spokesperson Dr Owen Sinclair (Te Rarawa) said current rates of immunisations for Māori and Pasifika are as low as they have ever been, and nowhere near achieving the levels required to protect tamariki.
"In South Auckland, only one in three Māori pēpi are up to date with their immunisations at six months of age. This is a real threat, when measles travelled from Auckland to Samoa in 2019 causing their fatal epidemic rates, their vaccination rates were 31%."
Sinclair encouraged whānau to make sure their pēpi and tamariki are up to date with their immunisations such as those for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and whooping cough.
"We also want to see our vaccination system rapidly reconfigured so that it is easy for whānau to get their tamariki immunised,” he said.
“These low rates of immunisation in Māori populations represent a preventable ethnic inequality that is a breach of Te Tiriti, exposing vulnerable Māori pēpi to fatal disease. This is unacceptable and totally preventable.”
RACP spokesperson Dr Hamish McCay said the focus needs to shift now from Covid-19 immunisations to increasing the rates for childhood vaccinations.
"If Aotearoa has a measles or whooping cough outbreak while we have such low levels of community immunity, our pēpi and tamariki are at risk of serious illness."
Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand spokesperson Rachel Mackay said she shares the concerns raised by the Society and the College of Physicians.
“This is why, among a wide range of other initiatives, an Immunisation Taskforce has been convened with strong focus on pēpi and tamariki Māori,” she said.
"They’ve identified key priority areas for action and will be reporting to Te Whatu Ora’s board by December. In the meantime, a significant body of work is already underway to improve childhood immunisation rates."
Mackay said Te Whatu Ora is working in partnership with primary care, health districts and others in the broader health sector to strengthen the workforce, build system enablers like the Aotearoa Immunisation Register and expand delivery models.
"The Covid-19 vaccination programme has created new opportunities that are already being used to improve our childhood immunisation work,” she said.
"Lessons from this programme will play a big part in creating a more culturally responsive and effective immunisation programme that will benefit all of Aotearoa.
Te Whatu Ora has a target of 95% of children being up to date with immunisations at 24 months.
Data from May to June 2022 shows 81.3% of Pacific children are up to date, and figures for tamariki Māori sit at 67.1%.
"Additional funding has been provided to providers to prioritise MMR vaccinations, with a particular focus on Māori and Pacific communities,” Mackay said.
"This additional funding includes money for outreach by Māori and Pacific providers, including in places like South Auckland with lower vaccination rates."