Forty per cent more flu shots are being made available to Kiwis as part of the Government’s Covid-19 winter plan, as some medical professionals think the flu season could be particularly bad this year due to New Zealand’s far lower natural immunity.
Aotearoa usually uses about 1.4 million flu vaccines a year – however this year, the Government is making two million available and is widening eligibility for people to get vaccinated for free.
“With the Omicron wave still working its way through the country, we need to protect our most vulnerable from getting the flu as well, and our health system from coming under more pressure,” says Health Minister Andrew Little.
“We already make the flu shot available for free for everyone over the age of 65, and for those who are pregnant or at risk of becoming seriously ill because of other underlying conditions.
“This winter, on the advice of doctors, we’re widening eligibility to include Māori and Pacific people aged 55 and over, which means an extra 39,000 people can have the vaccine for free.”
The Minster is urging as many people as possible to get the vaccine. “In an ordinary year, flu kills more than 500 New Zealanders. And this is no ordinary year.”
College of General Practitioners medical director Dr Bryan Betty, himself a Porirua GP, recently told Morning Report the influenza virus has barely been in NZ for two years due to the closed border.
“The thing we need to understand about the flu – it’s brought in from overseas by aeroplanes…New Zealand I think is particularly vulnerable because our borders were so closed we actually had no flu essentially in the country the last two seasons.
“As a result of that we think our natural immunity is down, which means we’re far more susceptible to a bad flu season this year than perhaps we normally would be.”
The Health Minster says usually, about half of people eligible for free vaccination take it up.
“For the past two years, with the country closed to the rest of the world because of the pandemic, we’ve been largely free of colds and flu.
“That’s changing, though, with our borders opening, and I encourage everyone – and especially the most vulnerable – to get vaccinated,” says the Minister.
Dr Betty says it’s especially important for older, younger and immunocompromised people to get vaccinated. European aged 65-plus, and Māori and Pacific aged 55-plus, are eligible for a free vaccination, then anyone who is living with a chronic disease such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma; some sort of condition that is chronic and ongoing.
“The other group to really really highlight this year is children, children can be very badly affected by the flu, especially children over the age of three living with conditions such as asthma or respiratory conditions or underlying health conditions such as Type 1 diabetes.”
Dr Betty says the flu vaccination is completely different to Covid-19 vaccinations – the flu vaccine is safe, effective “and one we have had for years”.
The $12 million expansion programme is funded by the Government’s Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund. Vaccinations are available from family doctors, pharmacists and some Maori and Pacific health providers.
To listen to the full interview Dr Bryan Betty had with Morning Report, See: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/464414/doctor-warns-tough-flu-season-ahead-and-new-zealand-is-particularly-vulnerable