Your Health

Is our luck about to run out when it comes to measles?

Measles, mumps, rubella vaccine.
Photo of Dr. Darcy Beer

DR. DAVINDER SINGH
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, July 21, 2017

Canadians have been hearing a lot lately about a surge in the number of reported cases of childhood diseases, and with good reason.

Outbreaks of mumps, for example, have been generating headlines for months. But there is another more serious childhood disease lurking out there that isn’t getting the attention it deserves: measles.

In the past few months, outbreaks of measles have been reported in Nova Scotia, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Alberta. There have also been outbreaks in nearby Minnesota, with 78 cases reported to date, and in Europe, where Italy alone has reported more than 3,000 cases in the last few months.

Fortunately, Manitoba hasn’t had an outbreak yet – there were no cases of measles reported in 2016, and only two in 2015 and eight in 2014. But there is evidence to suggest that our luck may be about to run out when it comes to the spread of this dreaded childhood disease. The reason: although measles, like mumps, can be prevented with a vaccination, too many people are choosing not to get one.

This is no small thing. Many people may believe that measles is just a harmless rash, but this is often not true. Three months ago, a seventeen-year-old girl from Portugal died from pneumonia caused by measles. In fact, up to one in 10 people infected with measles may experience serious complications, like pneumonia, and it causes 134,000 deaths every year around the world.

These deaths occur mainly in those who are most vulnerable: children less than one-year-old and those who have weakened immune systems. These are also the two groups of people who are not eligible for the vaccine, even if they or their families want it. This is why public health officials are constantly encouraging people to get vaccinated. Not only does it protect the individual in question, it also helps to protect those who are most vulnerable.

This is important because the measles virus can be introduced into a community from a visitor or returning traveller at any time. And once it arrives, it can spread very quickly.

In fact, experts suggest that if 10 people in a room are exposed to the disease without proper protection, nine of them will become infected. This means that at least nine out of every 10 people in any given community or group need to be immunized against measles to stop the rapid spread of infection.

The problem is that Manitoba is falling far short of this target. The most recent data suggests only seven out of 10 Manitobans are adequately immunized. Throughout the province there will be population pockets where the immunization rate is below or above 70 per cent, thereby increasing or decreasing the risk of infection.

How much of a health risk does that relatively low immunization rate pose? Consider this: Italy’s immunization rate was similar to Manitoba’s before it experienced its recent explosion of cases.

So why aren’t immunization rates here and elsewhere higher?

For some, it comes down to questions about safety and effectiveness. But on both counts, the evidence is clear. Vaccines are one of the most effective medical inventions of all time. The measles vaccine has decreased the number of cases in Canada by over 600 times. Vaccines are also one of the safest and most studied medical interventions in history. While serious side- effects can occur in about one in a million doses, your risk of being hit by a car while walking is three times higher according to Manitoba Public Insurance statistics.

So what can you do? First, check your immunization records to see if you or your children are up-to-date by calling your regional immunization records clerk (in Winnipeg 204-938-5347), contacting your local public health office, or contacting your doctor to obtain a copy of your records. Second, speak to your doctor to answer any questions you may have and get immunized if you are due. Getting any needed free immunizations will update your immunity and protect yourself, your family and your loved ones from preventable diseases like measles. Third, spread the word to make sure your community is protected – so that we all do what we can to protect those who, for medical reasons, are unable to be immunized.

For more information about immunizations and when to get vaccinated, visit: www.gov.mb.ca/health/publichealth/cdc/div/schedules.html.

 Dr. Davinder Singh is a public health resident with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, July 21, 2017.

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