In October the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) will be offering free hepatitis A vaccinations to all children aged between one and four years old in Ashburton, Methven and Rakaia.The vaccination campaign follows an outbreak of hepatitis A in Ashburton, which began in April this year with 28 confirmed cases to date, ranging in age from 14 months to 53 years.
Medical Officer of Health Dr Alistair Humphrey says control of the virus has proven difficult as preschoolers with hepatitis A often show no symptoms and can unknowingly pass the virus throughout the community.
"Hepatitis A is highly contagious and spreads rapidly. It is spread when people fail to wash their hands properly after going to the toilet, and because of this pre-schoolers are often responsible for spreading it," Dr Humphrey says.
"We had hoped that holding vaccination clinics in preschools where there was a link with hepatitis A would be sufficient to control the spread. We've held three such clinics but unfortunately the virus has continued to spread slowly in and around Ashburton. Without a mass vaccination of one to four year olds it's possible the current epidemic could last for several years."
The following free vaccination clinics are planned:
Dr Humphrey says that the immunisation programme alone will not prevent the spread of hepatitis A.
"The most important thing that can be done to prevent the virus spreading is thorough hand washing. Adults need to wash their hands thoroughly after using the toilet and before preparing food, and children need to be shown proper hand washing technique.
"For the last few months I've been strongly recommending that food handlers are vaccinated against the virus, and I strongly urge food businesses that haven't offered vaccination to their staff to do so. The cost of doing so is considerably cheaper than the costs a business would face if they were identified as spreading the virus." Dr Humphrey says the CDHB will be writing to all preschools to inform them about free vaccination clinics. To help minimize waiting times the letters will also recommend the best clinic for parents to attend.
It is recommended that parents of one to four year olds collect a consent form for each child from their preschool or General Practice team and complete this prior to attending the clinic. Children will need to remain at the clinic for 20 minutes after their vaccination for observation.
Primary Health Organisation enrolment data shows that there are 2071 children aged up to four years old in Ashburton, Methven and Rakaia. Hepatitis A vaccinations have already been provided to 127 people in this age group.
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