NZ Herald: Cecilia Robinson: We must resolve our healthcare debt

Originally published by the NZ Herald on 28/04/2023 

We keep hearing our healthcare system is in crisis but maybe we are becoming desensitised.

With our low immunisation rates, you can only make the assumption that we aren’t taking this situation seriously enough.

Be under no illusion, New Zealand’s healthcare system is in extreme distress and we must act now.

It is heart-wrenching that three babies have already died from whooping cough this year alone, and we’re only in April. This is unacceptable, and it’s time for the Government, parents and whānau to act.

Whooping cough is preventable, as is measles and countless other childhood illnesses that no child should have to suffer from.

We only have limited capacity in our healthcare system, so we need to ensure that basic preventative population health measures are well-managed and up-to-date.

For the quarter ending December 31, 2022, only 68 per cent of our tamariki aged 18 months were up-to-date with their childhood vaccinations. This is a catastrophic outcome and a significant drop from 85 per cent for the same quarter in 2019.

Some communities are particularly vulnerable, with only 47 per cent of Māori and 60 percent of Pasifika children up to date with vaccinations. It’s even worse for Māori in some areas such as Counties Manukau (36.3 per cent), Northland (37.8 per cent) and Bay of Plenty (39.6 per cent).

With low immunisation rates, the disease would spread faster, meaning these communities are more at risk.

So what happened? Where did it go so wrong?

I’ve seen first-hand the incredible pressure on primary healthcare over the past three years and the healthcare debt we’ve been left with. Due to the pandemic, healthcare workers have been stretched to the limit as Covid vaccinations became the key priority, with patients being told to not come into the clinic unless essential and some practices not undertaking routine screening and immunisations for periods during lockdowns.

Giving birth to our third baby during the level three lockdown in 2021 also gave me further insight into how parents have been left to manage on their own during the pandemic. Plunket, which I relied on a decade earlier when having our first son, had in-person care, examinations and education – and this all but disappeared.

Instead, we were largely left to fend for ourselves. I can’t imagine how isolating that must have been as a new parent, or how easy it would have been to simply forget to get some of your child’s routine immunisations done. It is understandable that parents in the last three years have fallen behind with their child’s immunisations. But the Government must now take an active lead in resolving the healthcare debt post-Covid.

What’s interesting is our Aussie neighbours, subject to the same pressures, have a different story. There, 93.7 per cent of one-year-olds and 94.3 per cent of five-year-olds are fully immunised.

I’d hedge a large bet that Australia’s National Immunisation Programme has a lot to do with it. Vaccination is mandatory to access family assistance payments and to get subsidised childcare. In most states, children must be fully immunised to attend childcare.

Aotearoa is lagging and we shouldn’t be. Our children deserve better.

Immunisations, and the visit to a nurse or doctor to have them, are free. But with a cost-of-living crisis, many parents can’t afford to have their pay cut in taking time off to visit the doctor, or face barriers in getting to the clinic.

Without incentives to prioritise vaccinations, I fear our vaccination rates will, unnecessarily, continue to fall.

If a “no jab – no pay” doesn’t sit well, why not a carrot instead? Many families may appreciate a supermarket or petrol voucher for their efforts.

Importantly, the process that was in place to get our children vaccinated has gone out the window. Pre-pandemic there was support for new parents to ensure their children had the best start to life.

During the pandemic, many new parents didn’t get the support from the organisations that used to provide it.

Difficulties in scheduling an appointment, a lack of visibility and easy access to this essential information have no doubt also helped create a generation of tamariki without immunity against dangerous and preventable illnesses.

We’re helping to resolve this issue by enabling patients to book routine screening and immunisations through an app, and having a record of the appointment completed. But we can all contribute to the protection of our tamariki.

If you are an adult and haven’t received a booster shot within the last 10 years, getting your booster is a crucial first step in safeguarding everyone’s health.

Critically, our Government needs to take urgent action.

Please, let’s not have more beautiful tamariki dying from preventable illnesses.