MMR vaccines worth around $10m at risk of being dumped

Corazon Miller
Source: 1News

EXCLUSIVE: Hundreds of thousands of MMR vaccines worth around $10 million are at risk of being dumped, as health providers struggle to maintain momentum alongside the Covid-19 response.

Figures obtained by 1 NEWS show there were 100,000 MMR doses due to expire around now - with another 400,000 due to expire early next year.

The Ministry of Health estimated 73,000 jabs a month would be needed in order to get through the stock in time. But given in the year to the end of June, 213,743 vaccines, at an average of 17,812 a month, were administered, it seems unlikely all the stock will be utilised.

Given the $25 per vial the Health Minister Andrew Little says the MMR vaccine cost, this could see a total loss of up to $10m.

In 2019 it was a different story. As New Zealand struggled through its worst outbreak of measles in more than 20 years, stocks of the frontline defence against the disease were being rationed.

Children who were under five were given priority because of the lack of supply, while others were turned away.

By mid 2020 the Government had pledged to “step up the fight” against measles in a $40 year-long measles-catch-up-campaign - with a focus on roughly 300,000 of those aged 15 to 30 who are not immune to measles.

But as Covid-19 lingered, the health sector which was already struggling with chronic workflow issues, found it hard to keep up.

Subsequently, the Ministry of Health manager of immunisation Kath Blair says it advised DHBs to maintain focus on Covid-19, influenza and childhood immunisation programmes.

“And that they could reduce the focus on the MMR catch up campaign for 15 to 30 year olds until October 2021 if they needed.”

Documents obtained by 1 NEWS show uptake for the campaign has been low and childhood vaccinations have also seen a lower than usual turnout.

In the campaign’s first year it had only managed to vaccinate 18,451 of those in the target group.

Across all DHBs there has been a struggle to recruit people to lead the campaigns. Three months after the campaigns official launch, Auckland, Lakes, MidCentral, Taranaki DHBs were still struggling to staff their programmes, while others reported challenges getting the work done.

Key parts of the planned high-level campaign timeline never made it past the planning stages.

Blair says Covid-19 had led to slower progress with the measles immunisation campaign.

“Covid-19 has impacted campaign progress meaning there is more unused vaccine.

“The Covid-19 vaccine rollout will be well underway by October 2021 meaning more resources will be available for a renewed focus on the MMR catch-up.”

Immunisation Advisory Centre director Dr Nikki Turner says it’s important other health issues do not get lost with the focus on Covid.

“We had the lockdown and now we have got the big vaccination rollout, it’s really hard for the health sector and the community to prioritise.

“Measles is a plane ride away from New Zealand. It will come back into our community. It is a highly infectious disease, it kills children all around the world.”

The Doctors Middlemore nurses have been working hard, juggling the Covid vaccination rollout, alongside encouraging the community to come in for their routine immunisations.

Among those getting a routine MMR shot is little Skyanne. Her mum Ofi Mahuinga was called the day before with a gentle reminder to come on in. She didn’t take much convincing - all her other five children have all been vaccinated too.

“It’s best for everybody to vaccinate their kids just to protect them,” she says. “I don’t want my child to be sick.”

Ana Cannas is the lead Covid-19 vaccination nurse. She makes the most of any quiet times in the Covid queue to call in families who are due their routine measles vaccines.

“It’s all about explaining to the parents, because I know for them they don’t really know how infectious and how easily they can get it, and how vulnerable the children are.”

Lead nurse Juliet Pati says her staff have been working above and beyond - and while they manage - resourcing is a struggle.

“I know it is like this everywhere in New Zealand, staffing is really, really difficult to get, but we manage.”

But she says it is vital for the community to take up their immunisations as usual, the cost if not would be too high.

“There are other challenges, overcrowding in the family. We are really worried about them not getting immunised, as it quickly spreads around the community, around the families and the churches as well.”