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Health experts say scrapping free flu vaccines for vulnerable groups a 'missed opportunity' for health equity

15 April, 2024

Interviews by Jessica Hopkins, adapted by Ashley-Rose Redstone

According to health experts, removing free flu vaccines for children and Māori and Pacific adults will increase illness in our communities and put pressure on hospitals. 

Flu vaccines will no longer be free for children under 12, or Māori and Pacific people aged 54-66. 

In 2022 and 2023, Pharmac extended the eligibility criteria for funded influenza vaccination to include additional priority groups, but this will not continue in 2024.

Senior Lecturer in Bioethics at the University of Otago, Dr Elizabeth Fenton, told 95bFM’s The Wire this announcement is "disappointing". 

Fenton cites that Māori and Pacific adults have higher rates of flu and lower vaccination rates compared to non-Māori and Pacific adults. Māori also have the highest mortality rate from respiratory illnesses than any other ethnic group in Aotearoa.

“Having free interventions for these particular groups helps to close health equity gaps in New Zealand."

Fenton says children in particular must be vaccinated as children are more likely to contract the flu and spread it to the rest of their whānau.

Associate Professor in Hauora Māori at the University of Otago, Esther Willing (Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Koata, Ngā Ruahine), told The Wire the eligibility changes are a “missed opportunity” to improve Māori and Pacific health outcomes and address persistent health inequities.

“Māori and Pacific tamariki, in particular, are more likely to live in cold damp housing and have underlying respiratory illnesses like asthma."

"Changing access to the flu vaccine for this group is quite significant. There will be negative health outcomes for tamariki.”

According to 2021 statistics from the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation and the University of 

Otago, Pacific people are 2.6 percent more likely to be hospitalised for respiratory conditions, with Māori being 2.2 percent more susceptible than non-MPA (non-Māori, Pacific, and Asian people).

Willing says subsidies led to an increase in flu vaccine uptake from these groups, which reduced pressure on hospitals.

“What removing this will do is increase the amount of illness in our communities and it is going to impact our hospitals during winter.” 

Flu vaccines will remain funded for infants and toddlers, children with health conditions such as asthma, pregnant women, and those aged 65 and older.

But Dr Fenton believes Aotearoa will see lower rates of flu vaccinations and higher rates of illness, now that subsidies have been reduced.

“More barriers means lower uptake.”

She argues vaccine subsidies are a “low-cost intervention” to increase vaccination rates.

Willing says the government’s approach to health does not recognise Māori and Pacific people have worse health outcomes at an earlier age.

“One size fits all does not help to address health equity. We need to do things differently for particularly vulnerable groups.”

Listen to the full interview with Dr Elizabeth Fenton

Listen to the full interview with Professor Esther Willing

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air