DoHAC sticks to status quo on meningococcal B vaccine

4 minute read

The department has no plans to change the vaccine’s NIP schedule listing, even as cases nationwide surpass last year’s record.

The Department of Health and Aged Care has all but ruled out extending access to the meningococcal B vaccine through the National Immunisation Program schedule, despite cases rising by close to 50% in the past year.  

A DoHAC spokesperson told The Medical Republic sister publication, the decision to restrict access to the meningococcal B vaccine was made based on a recommendation from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee after a review of existing evidence four years ago.

According to Professor Booy, infectious diseases paediatrician and board member of the Immunisation Coalition, that PBAC decision underestimated the severity of the toll that meningococcal B disease takes on individuals and communities.

“The PBAC doesn’t factor in the human cost as much as it could,” he told TMR.

“Politics is part of the equation too, so the [federal] health department may, on the basis of the PBAC, say no, but the politicians who were lobbied by survivors – they see the human cost, the long-term complications, the damage to people’s education and job prospects, the psychological issues.

“Things like that have been paid more attention in states like Queensland and South Australia.”

Under the current NIP schedule, vaccinations for meningococcal A, W, Y and C strains are free for all children at 12 months and between 14-16 years of age.

Only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under two and people at increased risk due to specific medical conditions are eligible for a free B vaccine. For others, the required two doses of the vaccine cost around $100 each.

“In November 2019, the PBAC considered all the available evidence to support the listing of the meningococcal B vaccine, Bexsero® (4CMenB) on the NIP,” the DoHAC spokesperson said.

“The PBAC did not recommend the listing of Bexsero® on the NIP for general population infants or adolescents.”

Cases of meningococcal disease have grown rapidly across the country, with 67 recorded in the first half of 2023 compared to 45 cases reported at the same time last year.

NSW Health issued a public health warning in June after an individual in their 50s was reported to have died from meningococcal disease. Twenty-six cases of meningococcal disease have been recorded in the state since the start of the year, largely the result of strain B infections.

According to Professor Booy making the meningococcal B vaccine more widely accessible by lowering costs was crucial to stemming the rising tide of disease nationwide.

“Eighty-five percent of current cases which we can group are B, so it is the great majority of cases right now,” he told TMR.

“Meningococcal B can cause severe disease, and mortality is a real risk. And of those who survive a high proportion have damage, whether it’s physical or psychological.

“It’s a disease that comes on so rapidly that in the course of a single day you can go from healthy to dead. Most health professionals [and] GPs will only see one or two cases in their professional career, so they won’t be good at recognising it.

“So it’s very much best prevented [rather] than trying to recognise it early.”

South Australia is currently the only jurisdiction providing free meningococcal B vaccines to children aged six weeks to a year and young people aged 14 to 16 years through its state-funded immunisation program.

Earlier this month, Queensland Health announced all infants and children under two and adolescents aged 15 to 19 years would be eligible for free B vaccines from early 2024, as previously reported by TMR’s sister publication Health Services Daily.

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