Plea for free chickenpox immunisation

BRONWYN TORRIE
Last updated 05:00 06/03/2013

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Doctors are calling on the Government to provide free vaccines for chickenpox and rotovirus, after some children have nearly died in hospital from severe bouts of the highly contagious bugs.

Wellington Hospital paediatric surgeon Brendon Bowkett sees first hand the dire effects of chickenpox and rotovirus, especially in children with underlying health issues who are put at risk of severe complications and even death.

He has had to cut out part of a lung in a child whose chickenpox led to pneumonia and abscesses.

"If you knew what was out there, most people would say, 'Vaccinate'."

Mr Bowkett described the current list of vaccines offered free to children as "primitive". Australia and the United States provide free childhood vaccinations for chickenpox and rotovirus.

"I'm dumbfounded and find it disdainful that so much paediatric surgical disease could be stopped by basic vaccinations."

Today Pharmac's immunisation subcommittee will discuss whether to add both vaccines to the list of fully funded inoculations.

The vaccines are available from doctors, but are unaffordable for many families.

Two doses of the rotovirus vaccine cost about $160. The chickenpox vaccine costs about $50 or $100, depending on whether one or two doses are needed.

Mr Bowkett was speaking out after a rotovirus outbreak in Wellington Children's Hospital.

"In recent days I've had at least three surgical patients severely compromised by a vaccinatable condition."

A Capital & Coast District Health Board spokesman said the outbreak was confined to the children's hospital. It began on January 21 and ended on February 7.

Five children had confirmed cases and there were four suspected cases among staff and one in a parent, the spokesman said.

"We suspect the virus was brought into the hospital but cannot confirm how this happened."

Funding the rotovirus vaccine for infants should be an "urgent priority" for the Government, the Paediatric Society said in January.

President Rosemary Marks said both vaccines would make a difference to hospital admission rates, which would save money.

Today marks Pharmac's first full meeting since the Government's drug buying agency took control of the National Immunisation Schedule last July, a spokesman for the agency said.

Vaccines for 11 diseases, including diphtheria, tetanus, polio and hepatitis B, are free for all children and young people.

The Ministry of Health spent $41.8 million on free vaccines, excluding influenza, last year.

Immunisation Advisory Centre director Nikki Turner said the ministry was clinically advised to add the chickenpox and rotovirus vaccines to the schedule when it was last reviewed four years ago.

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"After that it was the ministry's decision where they put their money . . . Now it's up to Pharmac."

In 2010, the ministry decided to focus on increasing overall immunisation rates, instead of introducing the vaccines.

Most children would have rotovirus - a stomach bug that can cause severe dehydration from vomiting and diarrhoea - before their third birthday, Dr Turner said.

Chickenpox can be dangerous for children with weak immune systems, such as those battling cancer. In extreme cases, it can cause swelling of the brain.

Parents were still holding "chickenpox parties" to expose children to the disease. Once a child has had it, they were unlikely to get it again.

Chickenpox and rotovirus are not notifiable diseases so the total number of cases in the community is not known.

VIRUS PUT CHILD IN HOSPITAL

Cooper Marsh still bears the chickenpox scars that left him in hospital and his three siblings suffering at their Christchurch home.

His mother, Hayley Marsh, said Cooper, who is now five, was 10 months old when he caught the highly contagious virus from his sisters.

Her oldest daughter, Bella, now aged eight, caught the virus from a school friend.

It then spread to all four of her children, none of whom were vaccinated against the virus. Her three daughters were "irritated" by the chickenpox, but Cooper was hit the hardest, Marsh said.

Having seen three of her children suffer from chickenpox Marsh, a nurse, realised Cooper's symptoms were not "normal".

"He wasn't recovering as he should be. A mother knows when things aren't right.

"He got really unwell. He had such a high heart rate and temperature."

Then he stopped eating and drinking, she said.

Marsh took him to Christchurch Hospital where he was admitted and was given antibiotics and fluids. In hospital it was revealed that Cooper also had chickenpox in his throat. However, he was discharged after one day due to the risk of him infecting others in the ward, she said.

Marsh welcomed a call from doctors for the Government to make the vaccination against chickenpox freely available.

She said that way parents would have the option without money being a factor.

She said if she had realised how badly affected her children would be she would "definitely" have vaccinated them against the virus.

She said Cooper was left "very scarred" from the chickenpox.

"I think they [his scars] will always be there."

- The Dominion Post

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