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State budget set to bear brunt of broader free Meningococcal B vaccine

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The Marshall Government is poised to announce new funding for a free meningococcal B immunisation program, expected to cost well above the $25 million pledged by Labor.

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InDaily understands the new immunisation program is set to extend vaccinations for teenagers as well as infants, with the September state budget to contain new spending to cover the program for the next four years.

South Australia has seen a spike in meningococcal cases so far this year, with 13 cases reported by SA Health – 12 of which have been the B strain.

The former Labor Government pledged to fund free Meningococcal B vaccines for children aged two and under – at a cost of $24.5 million – if the ALP was re-elected in March.

After the election, new Labor leader Peter Malinauskas urged the Marshall Government to adopt the immunisation plan, but Liberal Health minister Stephen Wade instead established a clinical task group to develop a statewide meningococcal B immunisation program.

Wade told FIVEaa last week he had received the task group’s report, but would not publish it in full “because it has commercial implications for the vaccination program”.

“I’m getting advice from my Department as we work through the options… it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of how,” he said.

“There’s a whole range of target groups in meningococcal B vaccination, and it’s how do we have the best impacts on the disease within the resources available.

“There [will] certainly be financial implications and we need to work through all the implications.”

Wade said at the time the report contained “a range of options”.

InDaily has been told these include extending Labor’s immunisation pledge to cover children aged five and under, as well as a “catch-up” program for older children aged 15 and 16 – although Wade refused to comment today.

It’s unclear whether the recommendations have been adopted in full, but InDaily understands the budget impact of the Government’s vaccination scheme will be significantly higher than the $24.5 million pledged by Labor, and will include an adolescent component.

An ongoing research program, B Part of It!, currently being undertaken by the University of Adelaide in partnership with SA Health has already seen around 35,000 year 10, 11 and 12 students in SA immunised against meningococcal B, a vaccination that would normally cost around $300 at the GP.

Professor Helen Marshall, Director of the Vaccinology and Immunology Research Trials Unit at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, told InDaily “we’re about to start the analysis to look at whether there’s a herd immunity benefit from vaccinating adolescents”.

Marshall said adolescents, as a group, are the largest carriers of meningococcal B, so it’s hoped by “preventing disease in the individual” there is a broader social benefit in minimising exposure for others.

“It’s a really important part of how immunisation programs can work – they protect the individual but also protect others in the community who are not immunised,” she said.

She said a similar program analysing Meningococcal C vaccinations in 2003 found “there was a really big herd immunity impact”.

“These B vaccines are different, so we need to check to see whether there’s also a herd immunity effect with the B vaccine,” she said.

Marshall said she was a member of Wade’s expert panel, but added: “I don’t think I could provide you with comments around that at the moment.”

Labor’s health spokesman Chris Picton said the Opposition understood the task group had recommended a broad immunisation subsidy and that Wade should release its findings immediately.

“Now that he’s had that advice, he has to act on it – he has to implement this program,” Picton said.

“We came out with our policy, and he then decided to go and create his own expert panel… they’ve come back recommending this broader scheme. He has to now spend this money to implement the scheme South Australian families are looking for.

“If they don’t deliver on what the report recommends, I think South Australians would be very concerned.”

The taskforce report coincides with an ongoing national review by the peak national clinical advisory group – the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) – which has already highlighted the need to optimise vaccination amongst a range of priority target groups, including young children generally, indigenous children up to 10 years old, adolescents and young adults.

The State Government will be hoping ATAGI makes its own recommendations around a national immunisation scheme, which might offset the impact on the state budget.

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