Free flu vax age could be lowered for Māori, Pasifika

By Will Trafford

The age flu vaccines can be administered for free to Māori and Pasifika may be dropped to 55-years-old due to the Covid-19 pandemic, if a proposal by Pharmac is accepted.

The government’s drug-funding agency says it's concerned closed borders have meant influenza hasn’t been circulating as it typically would over the past two years, so whānau are less likely to have developed immunity to the most recent strains; it is also concerned acquiring flu alongside Covid-19, could be dangerous.

“The presence of both influenza and Covid-19 (particularly Omicron) circulating in the community presents us with an extraordinary situation where the risk of co-infection is high.” Pharmac operations director Lisa Williams says.

“There has been minimal influenza circulating in New Zealand over the last two years. There is concern the lack of recent exposure to the flu in the community could lead to a reduced level of immunity here in New Zealand, come flu season. "

“We want to ensure that as many of our most vulnerable people as possible are vaccinated against flu to reduce the burden of influenza on an already stretched health system,” Williams said.

The flu vaccine is already free for people who are most vulnerable to becoming very sick if they get the virus, including pregnant women, people aged 65 and over, and people with health conditions such as chronic asthma or diabetes; some employers also provide it but Pharmac says given Māori and Pacific peoples also have a younger age range and a high incidence of pre-existing health conditions, the age should be lowered at least for 2022.

“Our clinical advisors have told us that Māori and Pacific peoples are at increased risk from seasonal influenza. We expect that the proposed widened access would reduce access barriers for some people who may already be eligible for the flu vaccine because of pre-existing health conditions but who may not have easy access to health care services” Williams said.

Pharmac says there are roughly 39,000 Māori and Pacific people aged between 55 and 64 not already eligible for the free flu vaccine, who could benefit from this widened funding. The proposal has gone out to healthcare professionals ‘with an interest in immunisation’.

If approved, the vaccine will become available to those over 55-years-old from April 1, 2022.