State Government opens up meningococcal vaccine to Perth toddlers

High Wycombe resident Amelia Simpson (4) is one of the first children to access the free meningococcal ACWY vaccination at Stirk Medical Group in High Wycombe. Picture: Sarah Brookes.
High Wycombe resident Amelia Simpson (4) is one of the first children to access the free meningococcal ACWY vaccination at Stirk Medical Group in High Wycombe. Picture: Sarah Brookes.

AN OUTBREAK of potentially deadly meningococcal disease in WA has prompted the State Government to extend its free vaccination program to children aged one to four years.

Health Department Communicable Disease Control Directorate acting director Dr Paul Effler urged every parent to consider vaccinating their child.

“We have seen this W outbreak really start to accelerate in the last two quarters so we want to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” he said.

“The W strain is a new strain and it’s more virulent and the six deaths we had in 2017 were all caused by the W strain.”

Dr Effler said meningococcal was a medical challenge to diagnose and treat so prevention was better than cure.

“Many of us carry the bug in the backs of our throats, particularly teenagers,” he said.

“Most of them are fine. But then somehow it gets transmitted to somebody else and it’s like lightning striking; a terrible catastrophic infection.

“In the early stages of that infection it can be hard to recognise it from other common childhood illnesses. Until (an infected child) gets a rash or starts showing signs their brain might be infected, you might not know it’s meningococcal disease.

“By then you are already chasing a very serious illness.”

Dr Effler hoped the extension of vaccine to younger children would stop the spread of the disease across the community.

“We have seen a reduction in cases that typically occur in that 15 to 19-year-old cohort after the introduction of the funded State-wide meningococcal ACWY vaccination program,” he said.

“This age group has gone from 20 per cent of cases over the last several years to two per cent last year.

“I don’t know that that is the vaccine, but it is encouraging.”

Dr Effler said while the vaccine was highly effective, there was concern the disease would mutate again.

“We’re not worried the vaccine won’t work, but there is always a worry in biology that the germ could mutate,” he said.

Health Minister Roger Cook took a swipe at the Federal Government and called for it to add the MenACWY vaccine to the National Immunisation Program.

“Providing vaccines to protect public health is a Commonwealth responsibility, yet they have remained idle on this issue for too long – leaving the State Government to take control yet again on meningococcal vaccinations,” he said.

“The State Government is not prepared to put the lives of more West Australians at risk while we wait for the Commonwealth to act.

“The Federal Government needs to act quickly and show some leadership. Put people ahead of dollars and add the MenACWY vaccine to the National Immunisation Program, as well as implement catch-up programs to protect at-risk community members.”

Last year, WA had 46 cases of meningococcal disease, six of which were fatal. The highest attack rate occurred among children younger than five years of age.

The free vaccine will be available throughout 2018 and is expected to cost the State Government $5.7 million.

Parents should contact their local GP or child health clinic to schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine.