Monday, June 24, 2024

Pharmac funding cuts raises health risks for babies

New Zealand’s Asthma and Respiratory Foundation claims more children are at risk of serious infection from RSV following a decision to cut funding for a medicine that prevents serious infection, reduces hospitalisations and can save lives.

The Foundation is supporting calls from paediatricians urging Pharmac to reconsider its decision to stop funding Palivizumab – a monoclonal antibody injection – since it was first funded in 2021.

Foundation Chief Executive, Letitia Harding says she is concerned for New Zealand’s most vulnerable, in particular children in Māori and Pacific communities.

“The decision not to fund the vaccine will worsen inequality and put more pressure on an already-stretched health system.”

“The government needs to listen to health specialists who are experts in their field, and invest more into Pharmac’s budget when there are proven effective treatments that actually prevent severe illness needing hospitalisation and intensive care,” said Ms Harding.

Dr Adrian Trenholme, a member of the Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Board, is just one of a number of paediatricians calling for Pharmac to overturn its decision.

“Premature infants and those with heart disease are going to become critically sick with RSV,” he said.

“Some will be admitted to intensive care unit for long periods of time and many will develop long-term lung problems such as recurrent wheezing episodes.”

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, typically occurs in winter and causes respiratory infection in children, mostly those under the age of six months. It is particularly severe for infants born prematurely and babies with underlying heart or neurological conditions. These are the groups of children who have been eligible for Palivizumab in 2021 and 2022.

Research shows that Māori and Pacific children have a much higher risk of hospitalisation from RSV, Dr Trenholme says.

“RSV clearly falls into the respiratory health category identified in Pharmac’s Māori health area of focus, yet they are removing something that makes a significant and proven impact to the health outcomes of children.”

An audit of eligible babies in the Auckland region through 2022 found that of the 170 children who received Palivizumab (51% who were Māori or Pacific), none were admitted to hospital with RSV infection. Waikato data also showed that no babies who had had regular Palivizumab were admitted to hospital or ICU, with data from 2023 supporting a similar picture.

Palivizumab has been funded for the last two years in New Zealand, and this was done urgently due to a huge resurgence of RSV cases post-Covid lockdowns.

There are no other current treatment or vaccination options for RSV in New Zealand except for Palivizumab. In the US and Europe, there are maternal and older adult vaccines available – and new monoclonal antibodies to replace Palivizumab which are effective and only need to be given once each winter – that but are not yet available in New Zealand, the Foundation said in a statement.

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