18 December 2017

Meningococcal fears: Free shot for Year 10 students from 2018

| Ian Bushnell
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Guarding against disease: ACT Health will roll out free, anti-meningococcal vaccines in schools early next year.

The rising number of meningococcal cases across Australia has prompted ACT Health to roll out a free vaccination program next year to protect all Year 10 students from the potentially fatal disease, including the nasty W strain causing concern in other jurisdictions.

The school-based vaccination program will provide Year 10 students with one dose of the ‘MenACWY’ vaccine, which provides protection against the meningococcal A, C, W and Y strains.

Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris said older teenagers and young adults were at increased risk of meningococcal disease and most likely to spread the disease to others.

“The decision to roll out the MenACWY vaccination program was based on information indicating cases of meningococcal W and Y disease were increasing across Australia, and we want to do everything we can to keep Canberra’s children and young people safe and well,” Ms Fitzharris said.

“Meningococcal W and meningococcal Y disease have been increasing across Australia in recent years, and outbreaks of meningococcal W are currently occurring in Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia.”

Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly said the meningococcal W strain that had been causing concern was a more virulent form than others and not covered by the current vaccination for young babies.

“It can be more severe, that’s one of the things we’ve noticed. In some cases, there is a higher rate of complications – even death. There have been well-documented deaths in recent times, particularly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, so we want to guard against that,” Dr Kelly said.

Chief Health Officer Dr Paul Kelly says teenagers are more vulnerable than other groups to meningococcal. Photo: Ian Bushnell.

He said meningococcal was very rare but very serious, with only eight cases of all strains recorded in the ACT since 2014.

“Meningococcal disease becomes a problem when that particular bug invades the body, and so goes into the bloodstream, and can effect the meninges that cover the brain and that causes meningitis, but it can also cause other illnesses,” Dr Kelly said.

Term 1 was a good time to conduct the program. ” Meningococcal season is in late winter/early spring so having the program in the first part of the year will be very valuable,” Dr Kelly said.

He said teenagers were more vulnerable to the disease due to certain behaviours such as kissing, which was one way to spread the disease.

Minister for Education and Early Childhood Development Yvette Berry said that school immunisation teams would begin visiting high schools during Term 1 to administer the vaccine, with parents’ approval.

“Families will receive a letter outlining the vaccination program and consent requirements. If your child misses the vaccination at school, you will still be able to get it for free at your GP,” she said.

Dr Kelly said there would be a catch-up program through GPs, with the vaccine still free but the cost of the visit won’t be covered. For those outside the program, the vaccine is available but at their own cost.

For more information on the disease, go here.

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