Wednesday, 14 November 2018
I thank the Minister of State for coming in today to take this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister for Health. I understand that an emergency meeting of the Cabinet is taking place due to Brexit so I appreciate that the Minister for Health could not be here.I want to raise the issue of VARIVAX. It is a vaccine for chickenpox and is not part of the national childhood immunisation programme at present. The Minister should make efforts to include it in the national vaccination programme for children. As I said, it is not part of the immunisation programme, although many parents are paying privately for this vaccine for their children. It is administered in two doses and is very effective in children under the age of 13. It can be given from the age of one year. As I said, many parents are paying for this privately, but this means that children whose parents cannot afford to pay for it privately are being left at risk.
There are many risks associated with chickenpox such as pneumonia, meningitis and, in later life, shingles, all of which can be very dangerous in themselves. It is part of the vaccination programme in many countries, such as the United States of America. Since its introduction into the national programme of that country 15 years ago, hospital admissions and deaths due to chickenpox have dropped by 80%. That is very significant. There is a reason parents here in Ireland are taking up this vaccination if they can pay for it privately themselves. It saves an awful lot of upset and discomfort for the children themselves and prevents parents having to take two or three weeks off work when a child has to stay out of childcare. There are also very serious risks associated with the disease, as I have outlined.
Children who cannot afford this are not getting it and that is not acceptable in this day and age. I understand that it is an expensive vaccination for children to get, but if it were included in the national vaccination programme, the cost for the State would come down dramatically. I would also suggest that the costs imposed on other areas of the health service would reduce dramatically in line with it because many parents of young children end up going into accident and emergency departments with their children or attending their GPs on several occasions. The saving would therefore outweigh the cost of the vaccination. I would like the Minister of State to consider this seriously and, perhaps, to give an indication today of starting a pilot project in this regard or of including it in the overall national immunisation programme.
I apologise on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Daly. He is in a committee. The Minister, Deputy Harris, is at the Cabinet meeting. I am standing in today. I thank Senator Clifford-Lee on behalf of the Minister and the Minister of State. I know how important this Commencement matter is to the Senator. I will read the written reply and then come back in at the end.
Immunisation is a safe and effective way to protect children against serious diseases. The national or primary childhood immunisation, PCI, programme covers immunisations between birth and 13 months of age. Immunisations covered by the programme are free of charge and administered by general practitioners within their clinics. The PCI programme provides immunisation against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, haemophilus influenzae type B, hepatitis B, pneumococcal disease, meningitis C, measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis B, and rotavirus.
Chickenpox is a common childhood infection. In most cases, the symptoms are mild and complications arising from it are rare. It should also be noted that all children develop immunity to chickenpox after infection. However, the side effects of the disease can be more severe in adults. Certain groups of people are at greater risk of serious complications from chickenpox. These include people who have weakened immune systems through illness, such as HIV, or through treatment, such as chemotherapy. Chickenpox can also cause a range of serious birth defects, as well as severe disease, when a pregnant woman catches the infection. Where a child has chickenpox, their school, nursery or day care should be informed as there may be other children who need to inform their GP that they have been exposed. They should be kept out of school until the last blister has burst and crusted over. This usually takes five to six days after the rash first appears. In 2017, 105 hospitalised cases of chickenpox were notified, most of which were in the group up to four years of age. Males and females were similarly affected.
The chickenpox vaccine, known as VARIVAX, provides protection against the varicella zoster virus that causes chickenpox and is not part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule. The vaccine is only offered to children who are particularly vulnerable to chickenpox. VARIVAX is also known as varicella virus vaccine live. It is a live virus vaccine that is given as an injection. VARIVAX works by helping to protect the immune system from getting chickenpox. VARIVAX is given to people who are 12 months old or older. If the chickenpox vaccine is required, two doses are given with four to eight weeks between doses. The chickenpox vaccine, however, should not be given to pregnant women.
Although the vaccine is not part of the routine childhood immunisation schedule, it is in other countries such as the US and Germany. In Ireland, the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, makes recommendations on vaccine policy. These recommendations are based on the epidemiology of diseases in Ireland and international best practice in respect of immunisation. The effectiveness and potential of the chickenpox vaccine and other vaccines to be included in the national childhood immunisation programme are kept under continual review by the advisory committee, the Department of Health, and the HSE. The most recent additions to the programme were the meningococcal B disease, MenB, vaccine and the rotavirus disease oral vaccine, which were included in 2016. I will come back on some points. I am sorry about the mispronunciation of some of these medical terms. They are not my favourite.
I thank the Minister of State very much but my question was not really answered. I understand that the MenB vaccine was included. I had a child in 2014 and she did not get the MenB vaccination, while my child born in 2018 did. I realise that it is under constant review but I really want the Minister to suggest to the NIAC that it undertake a study on the feasibility of adding the VARIVAX vaccination to the national schedule for children. I will write to the Minister in this regard because it is a very serious issue that certain groups of children in Ireland are getting vaccinated while other children from less well-off families are not.
As a parent and grandparent I understand the importance of any vaccination given to children. I believe all vaccinations should be given to children when they are very young and in school. As the Minister's statement has outlined, however, at present this vaccination is not part of the national immunisation programme. In saying that, I will take the Senator's concerns and views back to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and I will ask him if he will even look at a pilot project. It can be difficult to pinpoint areas in which to run pilot projects as people get concerned that their areas are not included, but I will bring the Senator's concerns and views back to the Minister and ask him to issue a letter to her or to contact her. I urge her to write to him or email him as well if she wishes. I will tell him that she is going to do that. I am sorry I do not have a more comprehensive answer for the Senator.