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NZ stopping Free Flu Vaccines for Children

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New Zealand has decided to stop offering free influenza vaccines to all children under 12, a change that may reverse recent gains in vaccine uptake.

This decision is expected to disproportionately affect children living in poverty and those at higher risk of severe illness.

Influenza is a major cause of preventable hospitalizations among children under 14 in New Zealand.

Children in poorer areas are three times more likely to be hospitalized due to lung infections. Health New Zealand recommends annual flu vaccination for all children starting at six months old.

In 2022 and 2023, flu vaccines were free for all children aged six months to 12 years. However, in 2024, the policy reverted to only providing free vaccines to children with significant respiratory illnesses or other high-risk medical conditions.

Data from 2018 to 2023 shows a significant increase in vaccine uptake when the vaccines were free. Before the pandemic in 2018, only 4.4% of children under five were vaccinated. This increased to 12% in 2023 when vaccines were free. However, uptake varied by ethnicity, with the highest in Asian children (21.3%) and the lowest in Pacific children (8.0%) and Māori children (4.9%).

Vaccination remains the best protection against severe influenza, reducing the risk of hospitalization by about 50%. Universal funding of flu vaccines has been found to be highly cost-effective in other countries.

Pharmac, New Zealand’s medicines funding agency, considered expanding access to the flu vaccine but cited budget constraints. However, universal vaccination for young children could lead to higher and more equitable uptake.

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