Pharmac widens flu vaccine access to increase uptake

Media release Medicines

Pharmac today announced that it is permanently widening access to the annual funded flu vaccine to people with specific mental health conditions or addiction issues, as well for children aged 3 to 12 years for the rest of the 2022 flu season. The widened access will start from 1 July.

“There has been a sharp increase in the flu cases recorded this season with the impact on our communities, likened to that of COVID-19,” says Pharmac’s Director of Operations, Lisa Williams. “With less influenza circulating in previous years, New Zealanders have a lower immunity, so it is more important than ever to boost our protection and reduce preventable hospitalisations and pressure on the healthcare system.”

“We are widening access to the funded flu vaccine now since only half of the available total stock has been used. We want to ensure that the available vaccine is put to good use, so people who are at the highest risk of becoming very ill from the flu can access the vaccine and all those who are eligible for it to go and get it.”

“People with specific mental health conditions and or addiction issues are now included in the eligibility criteria for the flu vaccine for 2022 and all future seasons. We initially received an application for these groups(external link) in 2019, and after assessing an updated application in 2021 it was ranked on our Options for Investment list.”

Chief Executive of The Mental Health Foundation, Shaun Robinson welcomes this widening of access. “People with such lived experience are often vulnerable to disproportionately poor physical health due to issues such as poverty, discrimination in housing and diagnostic over-shadowing – where their physical health needs are not given adequate attention because of their mental health or addiction issues.”

People with lived experience of mental distress and of addictions have the right to good physical health and health care – the Pharmac decision about funded flu vaccine takes us another step towards this goal,” Mr Robinson says. 

For the rest of 2022, Pharmac is also widening funded access to all children aged 3 to 12 years. Tamariki under 9 years of age who have not previously received flu vaccine will need two doses given four weeks apart to gain full immunity for 2022.

“We know that the flu spreads quickly between our tamariki,” says Ms Williams. “This increases the chance of them bringing it home affecting the wider whānau, which is why we want to encourage as many families as possible to make use of this chance to get tamariki vaccinated for free. While some children will have already had their flu vaccine, we believe up to an additional 650,000 children will benefit from this change.”

“This year we have a situation where there is reduced population immunity to influenza, as it has not circulated while borders have been closed. Now we have both influenza and COVID-19 circulating at the same time, which puts more people at risk and our health system under further strain. We believe that these additional measures will help use up the available vaccine and support the health system as it manages high levels of illness in the community this winter.”

Prior to the flu season starting, Pharmac also widened access to the influenza vaccine for all Māori and Pacific people aged 55 to 64, also to boost immunity during the 2022 flu season.

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The flu vaccine is already free for people over 65, people with long-term conditions (like asthma and diabetes), and those who are pregnant.

Those who do not qualify for the funded vaccine, can pay to be vaccinated through general practitioners, pharmacists and other private immunisation providers. Some people might be able to get a free vaccination through their employer's occupational health programme.