There are fears an outbreak of measles or whooping cough could re-emerge once borders open if thousands of children who have missed vaccinations because of Covid-19 are not caught up quickly.
The number of children receiving their vaccinations on time had fallen by around “a couple of percent” since March, Immunisation Advisory Centre Dr Nikki Turner said.
That was because many outreach services, which offered vaccination in homes, were unable to operate during lockdown or Covid-19 level 3.
“A lot of our services to our most vulnerable communities were curtailed for a while.
“The second reason for the drop off is families themselves have anxieties and concerns about bringing children, bringing infants to health services while there may be Covid around.”
Māori children were disproportionately missing out, University of Auckland vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris said.
“There’s the issue of accessing services, and also more and more recently there’s been misinformation that is really targeting Māori in particular … those conspiracy theories are feeding into that and driving a further wedge.”
Access to health services was the main issue affecting the potentially hundreds of children who may have missed their scheduled vaccinations in Hawke’s Bay, the district health board’s immunisation coordinator Fiona Jackson said.
There had been a “notable drop” in Māori and Pasifika children not getting their jabs in the last quarter.
In order to get them back on track, the health board was offering more vaccinations in homes for those hard-to-reach groups, and it was working with Māori community groups to bring more whānau on board.
“It’s making sure that people know that general practice is open for business … and the messaging is getting out into the community that it is safe to be out accessing providers for immunisation.”
The Ministry of Health was forecasting a drop of about “one percentage point” in immunisation rates because of Covid, but it would not know exactly how many children had missed them until data was collated and analysed in November.
“The ministry is considering how to support catch-up immunisation for this group over the coming months,” a spokesperson said.
Māori GP and public health researcher at Otago University Sue Crengle said there needed to be a nationally coordinated catch-up plan, as it was usually left up to individual clinics, primary health organisations or district health boards to organise.
Novel approaches, including offering vaccinations away from doctor’s clinics, could also be tried to allay whānau’s concerns about taking well children to the doctors, she said.
Catching up on whooping cough and measles vaccinations should be top priorities to avoid future outbreaks, Dr Turner said.
This was because the immunisations had to be given on time to help prevent outbreaks of those diseases.
It was also critically important because of predictions internationally there would be outbreaks of measles because immunisations had fallen to the wayside in many countries struggling with Covid-19.
“The moment our borders ease up a bit, measles will start returning and coming to New Zealand.
It was “frightening” to see childhood immunisation rates for the disease diving overseas because of Covid, she said.
“We must not become complacent.”
Experts agreed that protection against measles would improve once the MMR vaccine could be given to babies aged 12 and 15 months, instead of at 15 months and then four-years, from 1 October.