Today April 24th is the beginning of Immunisation Week, it is also World Meningitis Day and to top it all off it is Meningitis Centre Australia’s 28th birthday.
The pandemic and the Government imposed isolation has given us time to reflect on the necessity of a vaccine.
Today we are launching “Germs are Mean”. A cartoon which airs nationally on our TV screens and is aimed at generating a conversation around vaccinations and hygiene.
Traditionally a parent or guardian has automatically taken a child to get their 1-4 year old immunisations. Most children don’t really remember these shots and it is rarely discussed or understood as to why they are getting them, probably right up until they become teenagers and the high school based immunisation program starts.
Kids need to feel comfortable about needles and the reason why they are getting vaccinated. This cartoon is aimed at not only just starting this discussion but to also highlight the importance of hygiene like washing hands and not sharing food or drinks.
Recently with COVID-19 we have seen how easily viruses and diseases are transmitted and if we can practice good hygiene and get vaccinated we can live a pretty healthy life.
Kids are generally inquisitive and curious by nature and willing to learn. They teach us adults to do better, to question things and improve our life. The conversation about vaccination does not have to be complicated and at the moment, it is one which is necessary.
Many kids spend a lot of time with their grandparents, and in these self-isolating times, miss them more than ever. They understand that Nan and Pop are ageing, and it is very important to keep them healthy. Children can prompt our seniors to be more aware of their mortality and maybe urge them to get vaccinated. As they can, with their own Mum and Dad.
Vaccines and hygiene are the simplest and cheapest ways of killing off germs and staying healthy.
The Centre’s purpose has always been to raise awareness and campaign for vaccinations against hideous diseases like Haemophilus Influenzae Type B (Hib), meningococcal and pneumococcal. Diseases which can kill within 24 hours.
Very hard work has paid off for us, with major changes to the National Immunisation Program, (N.I.P.) with the inclusion of vaccinations for all three groups added to the program over the past 30 years.
We were established by child health researcher and Patron of the Centre, Professor Fiona Stanley, and inaugural and current Chairman Bruce Langoulant, whose daughter Ashleigh contracted pneumococcal meningitis at the tender age of 6 months, leaving her severely disabled.
The pair started campaigning in 1992 for better vaccination programs for our kids, as they saw significant numbers of HiB infections particularly then meningococcal and pneumococcal cases rise throughout the country. A HiB vaccine was becoming available but other vaccines were years away. It took over a decade of further hard work to see our first meningococcal (C) in 2003 and pneumococcal in 2005 vaccines included on the schedule. Almost 20 years later we have virtually eliminated Men C and HiB.
Another decade later in 2013, WA started to see cases of meningococcal W. A rather “new” strain to the country. WA experienced an abnormal surge in this strain in 2016, particularly in the Kalgoorlie region. It was very concerning because this strain was highly virulent, and cases were doubling every year. There was a vaccine already on the market known as ACWY but was only usually offered to those travelling to Africa or the Middle East. This quadrivalent not just protected you against “W” but it protected you against 3 other strains including the “C” strain which was already on the N.I.P.
The Centre worked with meningococcal researchers to lobby the State Government to introduce this vaccine into its State-run program and offer it free to teenagers who are considered the biggest carriers of the disease.
2016 ended with 23 meningococcal cases in WA, 14 of which were W. By January 2017, the State Government announced they would introduce the ACWY vaccination to teenagers aged between 15 and 19 years, for free. Western Australia became the FIRST state to have this program. We were the envy of the rest of the country. Within 2 weeks three states replicated our move, New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria.
The Centre then rallied for the Federal Government to make the vaccine accessible for all teenagers and 12 month old babies, by requesting that the Men C vaccine given at 12 months of age be replaced with the ACWY vaccine, protecting children nationwide against the 4 strains.
The rally included a petition to government which generated 10 thousand signatures in 10 days as well as many stories from survivors of the disease and those who had lost family members.
Success was achieved in July 2018, when it was announced ACWY would be included on the N.I.P. to 12-month old’s and the following year to teenagers nationwide.
WA is the only state in the country which also offers a free ACWY vaccination for those aged 1-4 years of age.
It is what happened after this hard work where the story gets better….
Through the help of our partnership and work with the Confederation of Meningitis Organisations (CoMO), including our association with Professor James Stuart from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, we were invited to attend a World Health Organisation conference last year called “Defeating Meningitis by 2030”.
To be asked to attend by the WHO was an honour, but to be in the same room of some wonderful minds including researchers, doctors and representatives from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, London University etc.…was quite inspiring.
If that wasn’t enough, we were asked to sit on a panel with researchers, because of our work as a major advocacy group for vaccinations in the Asia Pacific region…... So, it was a bit of a “pinch yourself” moment. Not bad for an organisation that operates out of a very small one room office, and on a shoestring budget!
Then when we thought things couldn’t get any better, MCA was then asked by the WHO to do a presentation on our involvement in getting the ACWY vaccination on to the National Immunisation Program.
The World Health Organisation had heard about all the work we had done in Australia and were very impressed at what we had achieved. It was all a bit surreal, as I don’t think many Australians even knew who we were or the work we had done over the years. It’s a bit like that kid’s story “The Little engine that could” but we were the “Little purple butterfly that flew!”
So, the result of that conference, led to The Executive Board of the WHO formally agreeing that Defeating Meningitis by 2030 should be brought before the World Health Assembly. It has been great to be internationally recognised by such a hugely respected organisation, and that the contribution we continue to make within the meningitis landscape, makes a difference to the lives of people around the world.
If the WHO was hearing our message, then maybe we should talk more about vaccines in our own country. We have often been told that people are not aware that meningococcal has five different strains (all of which are vaccine preventable). They assume if they are protected against one strain, then they must be protected by all. Doctors inform us that a conversation around vaccination does not usually happen unless the patient discusses it first. The numbers speak for themselves. Last year in WA, only 23 per cent of 65-year-olds got the free pneumococcal vaccine and 31% for indigenous groups, who are most at risk. This is a needle which can help protect seniors from dying from pneumonia.
Two young ladies in their 20s from Geraldton and Kalgoorlie, lost their lives to meningococcal over the summer break, because their families say they were not aware of the vaccines available or that they had been vaccinated against a different strain and were not aware of other serotypes. When you look at the figures for those aged between 20 and 30 years, only 8 per cent were vaccinated in 2019. This vaccine costs around $85, and this disease can happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time.
Australia can boast that it has one of the safest and best immunisation programs in the world. Many changes have happened to the N.I.P. over the past three years mainly due to the improvement, and expansion of the meningococcal and pneumococcal vaccine program with more positive changes expected in the next 12 months.
As we head into the winter season, we can safeguard ourselves from certain diseases. Check to see if your vaccinations are up to date, get vaccinated on time and ask your GP if there are any vaccines that you should consider getting. Start the conversation today because Germs are very Mean!
SOURCE: Lisa D'Cruz - CEO of Meningitis Centre Australia