Vaccine alert for next wave of pandemic

Supplies of the swine flu vaccine are being rushed into New Zealand amid concern the next wave of the deadly pandemic could hit the country as early as March.

The Ministry of Health wants to begin vaccinating pregnant women and vulnerable young children from next month as overseas experience suggests that they are most likely to die from the virus. New data from the United States shows the H1N1 virus, which first surfaced last year, has been responsible for an estimated 1090 deaths in children – far more than in any of the three previous influenza seasons. The mortality rate has been especially high in children under the age of one.

Health professionals are now saying that it is critical that children aged six months and over and pregnant women are vaccinated to protect themselves and their newborns.

Dr Fran McGrath, deputy director of public health, said the northern hemisphere experience suggested that pandemic influenza might arrive ahead of the usual influenza – possibly mid to late March, leading to a peak in late April or early May.

McGrath said the Ministry of Health had ordered stocks of a trivalent seasonal influenza vaccine (a vaccine protecting against H1N1 and two other influenza strains), but difficulties in producing the vaccine meant delays were possible and there was a risk the pandemic might arrive before vaccine protection was in place.

For that reason the ministry was making a single strain swine flu vaccine available free from next month through an early targeted immunisation programme. Those who would be targeted by the programme included frontline healthcare workers, pregnant women, and all children aged from six months to five years enrolled in GP practices in poorer areas or with high proportions of Maori or Pacific Islanders.

People who were morbidly obese or who suffered from certain medical conditions would be also offered the vaccine for free. Those not targeted by the programme would still be able to get the vaccine from their doctors but would have to pay for it. The cost has not been decided.

"The ministry recommends that those at highest risk of complications have this monovalent vaccine, followed by the seasonal influenza immunisation when it becomes available," McGrath said.

Calls to Healthline and GP consultations for influenza-like illness were currently low – at about usual levels for this time of year – but the Ministry of Health was monitoring for any early signs of an upswing.

The World Health Organisation reported earlier this month that worldwide more than 208 countries and overseas territories have reported laboratory-confirmed cases of pandemic influenza H1N1, including at least 12,799 deaths. In New Zealand last year, 20 people were confirmed to have died from the virus, and thousands contracted it. Authorities stopped official counts after around 3000 cases.

Associate Professor Lance Jennings, a virologist and member of the national influenza strategy group, said much had been learnt about the H1N1 virus over the past few months as it had circulated around the northern hemisphere.

New Zealand was likely to be one of the first countries to experience the next wave of the pandemic and history showed the second wave was often more severe than the first.

"We have no way of predicting whether it's going to occur next month or May/June when our usual influenza season gets under way. What is important is maintaining awareness of the potential threat of this virus and its severity and making sure we do have adequate supplies of [vaccine] available for those at greatest risk of this virus."

Sunday Star Times