Doctors say meningitis could be almost entirely eliminated in New Zealand as early as the end of the year.
The potentially fatal disease reached epidemic proportions between 1991 and 2007 before a vaccination programme caused a sharp drop in the number of cases.
A new vaccine being introduced in July will protect against three further strands of invasive pneumococcal disease, and the Ministry of Health has set a target of immunising 95 per cent of eight-month-old babies by December, up from the current 91 per cent.
The Immunisation Advisory Centre's director of research, Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, said the number of people contracting and spreading meningitis had fallen "dramatically" in recent years. She said New Zealand was edging closer to relegating meningitis to the category of rare diseases.
"We've made a big dent already, we just need to target the remaining serotypes through vaccines."
Speaking ahead of world meningitis awareness day on Thursday, Petousis-Harris said the occasion was a reminder that preventable deaths continued to occur.
For patients and their families, one small symptom can be all it takes to turn their lives upside down.
An ear infection prompted a trip to hospital for one-year-old Elly Studer, from Hamilton. Now aged 10, she lives with two cochlear ear implants and the knowledge that the doctor's early diagnosis probably saved her life.
Her mother Jo said Elly was immunised but the vaccine that covered her strand of meningitis was not available at the time.
"We took her to the hospital thinking she was just dehydrated," she said. "Then we were told she may not survive the day, or she could be blind, deaf, or have multiple seizures or permanent organ damage. Fortunately she reacted well to the medication. We just appreciate every day that she's still here."
Meningitis mainly affects babies, teenagers and the elderly, and can kill within 24 hours. Even with prompt diagnosis, about 10 per cent of patients will die and 20 per cent will be left with permanent damage and disability.
Lesley Smith, of Tokoroa, said parents should trust their gut instinct.
Her 14-month-old son David suffered flu-like symptoms but she was told at a doctor's check-up he didn't need to go to hospital. The next morning she woke him from his cot and saw dry blood at the corner of his mouth.
He was diagnosed straight away with meningitis and within 24 hours his life support was switched off.
"It just happened so quickly," Smith said. "I had a gut feeling. But I listened to the doctor instead of listening to my gut. If we had have taken him straight to hospital earlier he probably would have survived."
This Wednesday is the 24th anniversary of David's death.
Fellow Tokoroa mother Tash Wehipeihana-Kaea says it is still frightening to recall that when her son Kardas was diagnosed with meningitis in 2003, doctors told her that he would have been "gone" had she delayed seeking care by even minutes. "That's how far the disease had spread."
He has spent the past 11 years in and out of hospital with a depleted immune system.
Figures from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research show there were 74 confirmed cases of meningococcal meningitis in New Zealand in 2012 - down from 108 in 2011, and a marked decline from the 648 recorded in 2001, at the peak of the epidemic.
Starship children's hospital invasive disease paediatrician Emma Best said vaccination was the key.
Best said she treats children every day with varying degrees of meningitis - ranging from swollen glands and fingers to lost limbs.
She said research was continuing into why certain children react so differently to the same bacteria.
The new 13-valent vaccine will be introduced as part of the National Immunisation Schedule on July 1.
- Sunday Star Times
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