H1N1 expected to hit in March, tamariki Maori considered most vunerable

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Evidence from overseas suggests that Swine Flu (H1N1) could hit Aotearoa as early as March, the Ministry of Health is therefore rushing vaccines over in order to begin vaccinating those most vulnerable to this strain.

These include:

  • frontline medical workers
  • pregnant women
  • children between the ages of 6 months & 5 years
  • Maori and Pacific Island children

New data from the US 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.

Because of a delay in making a vaccine that protects against several strains of the flu 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.”

(Source: in part from Stuff.co.nz)

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