New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has blamed inequality in access to health services, particularly among the country’s Pacific Island community, for the soaring measles outbreak.
The number of Kiwis infected by the highly contagious disease has swollen again to sit on the brink of 1000, with babies and teenagers the most affected.
Local media reports say a small number of infants have been hospitalised in a critical condition.
While public health officials say the outbreak is not an epidemic, as it’s largely contained to south Auckland, they also expect numbers to grow for at least another fortnight.
The prospect of a worsening crisis, and deaths, prompted Ms Ardern to take the issue front and centre in her weekly briefing in Wellington on Monday.
She believes systemic inequality, rather than the sometimes prominent voice of anti-vaxxer groups in the social media age, is fuelling the outbreak.
“We have an inequality and equity issue for people accessing the health services that they not only deserve, but that remain available to them and for free,” Ms Ardern said.
“We have identified that there is an equity issue, particularly our Pacific Island community haven’t been accessing those immunisations at the rate we need to.”
South Auckland – the region most affected by the outbreak – is home to some of New Zealand’s poorest communities.
Additional nurses have been deployed in schools, churches and shopping centres there to help bolster immunisation rates and contain the outbreak.
That outreach could extend to pharmacies over the next week.
Ms Ardern erroneously dumped Australia within a collection of places that she said had experienced outbreaks in the past month, along with “Hong Kong, the Philippines, Europe, Canada and the United States”.
In fact, while Australian cases of measles are also up on last year – like much of the world – there were just four cases reported nationwide in August.
The public health crisis has major implications for Australia and Pacific neighbours, given the ability of the virus to spread easily.
Department of Health data shows New Zealand’s immunity dropped marginally, but crucially, by a few percentage points across all age groups from 2016 to below herd immunity rates.
Director General of Health Care Ashley Bloomfield said the number of cases was “still trending up” based on an epidemic curve model.
“We’re expecting it to keep going up for another week or two, and then to peak and drop away. It’s very important that we therefore keep focusing on immunising children, and the 15 to 29 year old age group,” he said.