Good reason for later flu vaccination programme
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20 February 2015
 
People have no need to be alarmed that this year’s flu vaccination programme is set to run four weeks later than usual says Whanganui’s medical officer of health Patrick O’Connor.
 
Dr O’Connor says there is good reason for the delay - two new strains included in this year’s Southern Hemisphere influenza vaccines require a complex manufacturing process which is taking longer than usual.
 
The new strains (A/Switzerland and B/Phuket) for the 2015 influenza vaccine, which includes A/California, are based upon World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations on the strains most likely to spread and cause illness in people this season.
 
National Influenza Specialist Group (NISG) spokesperson and virologist, Dr Lance Jennings says the bad flu season developing in the United States and possibly in Europe, was caused by an influenza A (H3N2) strain which had ‘drifted’ or changed and was, therefore, not included in the Northern Hemisphere flu vaccine.
 
“We had this strain in New Zealand at the end of our winter last year, so some people have already been exposed to it. We believe the vaccine currently being formulated for New Zealand should offer good protection against the circulating H3N2 strain.”
 
Dr Jennings says the impact of the delay should be minimal – it’s important that New Zealand has a continuous supply of vaccine before starting the programme and a continuous supply is expected to be available in April. 
 
In the meantime, Dr O’Connor says protecting younger people, especially those with ongoing medical conditions, will be a special focus of this year’s seasonal influenza immunisation programme. It’s well known that younger people who have ongoing medical conditions such as diabetes or asthma, are often unaware they’re at risk and more likely to be admitted to hospital when suffering from influenza, than the general population.
 
People 65 years and over remain a priority along with those who have ongoing medical conditions, pregnant women and eligible children. Research has shown that healthy, pregnant women are up to 18 times more likely to be admitted to hospital when suffering from influenza than non-pregnant women.
 
There are also a range of influenza-related complications that can affect an unborn infant, and can even cause premature birth or miscarriage. Immunisation in pregnancy offers protection to the newborn infant during the first few months of life. 
 
Dr O’Connor says around 1.2 million doses of influenza vaccine were used in NZ in the 2014 season with the highest uptake among people aged 65 and over.
 
Influenza immunisation is free as soon as the vaccine is available (from April this year) for New Zealanders at high risk of complications – pregnant women, people aged 65 and over, and anyone under 65 years of age with ongoing medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, respiratory disease (including asthma), kidney disease and most cancers, as well as children under four who have been hospitalised for respiratory illness or have a history of significant respiratory illness. The subsidised season will end on 31 July, 2015. For further information go to www.fightflu.co.nz or www.moh.govt.nz or call 0800 IMMUNE (0800 66 86 43).