How measles can affect your family

Published on Wednesday, 24 April 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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NZ Immunisation Week 2019 is happening next week, 29 April - 5 May, and this year's theme – 'Protected Together #Immunise' – is particularly pertinent in light of a recent measles outbreak in the Canterbury district.

With numerous cases confirmed, the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) says, 'It can now be assumed that measles is circulating widely in our community'.

According to The Guardian, 'Health experts are concerned that the Canterbury outbreak is the tip of the iceberg … and further outbreaks in different parts of the country are expected as the year progresses.'

This outbreak in the South Island is thought to have come from people who were not fully immunised, and health experts are urging New Zealanders to get up-to-date with their MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccinations.

To understand more, let's look at the symptoms of measles and why MMR vaccinations are strongly recommended by the Government and medical professionals.

What is measles?

The CDHB describes measles as a, 'Serious, highly infectious, potentially life-threatening disease'. It is spread through coughing and sneezing, and if people who are not immunised come within two metres of an infectious person , they have a 90 per cent chance of contracting measles themselves, with the first symptoms usually showing 10 to 12 days after that contact.

The disease starts with a dry cough, runny nose, headache, temperature over 38.5 degrees Celsius and a very sick feeling. Then a red, blotchy rash appears on day four or five of the illness – usually starting on the face, before spreading to the chest and arms.

People are infectious from five days before until five days after the rash first appears, and because the disease is so easily spread, anyone with measles should stay home during this time.

Child care centres and schools are legally entitled to exclude unvaccinated children when there's a risk of measles being spread. You're advised to call your general practitioner or Healthline (on 0800 611 116) if you're concerned that you or your child have been exposed to measles or has the symptoms.

How can measles impact your family?

Aside from making family members feel terrible and look blotchy, measles is a serious illness. According to the Ministry of Health, about one in 10 people with measles require hospital treatment, and up to 30 per cent of people with measles will develop complications – usually children under five and adults over 20. Complications include ear infections, which can cause permanent hearing loss, diarrhoea, pneumonia, seizures and, in rare cases, swelling of the brain.

Contracting measles when pregnant also increases the risk of miscarriage, premature labour and a low birth-weight baby.

What can families do to prevent measles?

Health officials say the best protection for New Zealanders under the age of 50 is to have two MMR vaccinations, which are 99 per cent effective in preventing measles.

People are immune to measles if they've had both doses of the vaccine, have had measles already or were born before 1969. When it comes to children, the CDHB says, 'Babies whose mother is immune will have some protection if they are currently being breastfed. For children who are too young to have had both MMRs or who cannot be immunised for other reasons, the best way to protect them is to ensure everyone around them has been vaccinated – if you can't get it, you can't pass it on.'

How can families get vaccinated for measles?

Thousands of MMR vaccines have been rushed to the Canterbury district to combat the measles outbreak there, and around the country vaccines are provided by general practitioners.

New Zealanders born in 1969 or later get the measles vaccines for free, and when it comes to children, the Ministry of Health's New Zealand Immunisation Schedule calls for a MMR vaccine at 15 months and four years of age.

Saying that, the CDHB says that the four-year-old MMR can be brought forward to, 'No sooner than four weeks after the previous MMR' in light of the Canterbury measles outbreak.

Is New Zealand the only country facing a measles outbreak?

Unfortunately, no. Measles has seen a 30 per cent increase in cases worldwide – with places like Madagascar, the Philippines, the Ukraine, Venezuela, Brazil, Italy, France and Japan facing serious outbreaks – and part of the reason for this is 'vaccine hesitancy'.

In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global health threats of 2019 and says that, "The reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases", with, "Some countries that were close to eliminating the disease [seeing] a resurgence".

The WHO says that vaccination currently prevents two to three million deaths a year and that 1.5 million more could be avoided worldwide if vaccination rates improved, so it's worth checking if your family is up-to-date with their jabs – for the good of yourselves and the greater population.

References and further reading

Canterbury District Health Board
The Guardian
Ministry of Health - Vaccination Rules for Child Care and the National Immunisation Schedule
KidsHealth - How Can I Care for My Child With Measles and When Should I Seek Help?

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