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New Zealand Children at High Risk of Measles

New Zealand Children at High Risk of Measles

Low immunisation rates in New Zealand mean that many New Zealand children under 5 are at risk of catching the highly infectious illness, measles. Our immunisation rates are amongst the lowest for any developed country, according to Dr Nikki Turner of Auckland University’s Immunisation Advisory Centre.

“Around a quarter of New Zealand children who are under 5 years of age could be vulnerable to catching measles”, says Dr Turner. Measles cases have soared during July, with cases climbing from 7 confirmed cases in each of May and June to over 80 in July, with more expected to be reported. Further, the disease appears to be heading north from its original beginnings in the South Island.

Measles is an extremely infectious disease with just one case infecting a further 12-18 people. “When there are enough people in the community who are not immune to the disease an epidemic will occur. The only way of preventing measles is by having high immunisation rates in a community", she said

Dr Turner says that measles can be very serious with many cases experiencing complications such as ear infections and pneumonia. Hospitalisation is not uncommon. Death occurs in around 1 per 1000 cases as does severe brain damage. During the last major New Zealand epidemic in 1991 there were around 7000 cases and 7 children died. It is likely that we are now at the beginning of a serious measles outbreak in New Zealand.

Almost all children with measles will experience 1-2 weeks of high fever, hacking cough, red eyes and a rash. Most will recover with no permanent health effects, however the following are expected for every 1000 people infected.-

• About 80 ear infections
• 60 with diarrhoea
• 50 with pneumonia
• 1 brain inflammation
• Around 100 hospitalisations
• 1 death

“Many New Zealanders may not have seen measles, or have forgotten that it can be a serious and sometimes fatal disease, even in healthy well nourished children. We’re asking parents to be aware that there are myths and misinformation about the measles immunisation when they make decisions. If immunisation rates are high enough in the New Zealand community we will not see any cases of measles. Protecting one child also protects others. We all need to take care of the health of our children and our community”, says Dr Turner

Current data show that up to a quarter of our children under 5 years of age are unlikely to be protected against measles. This is because our immunisation rates are too low, with around 80-85% of children receiving the vaccine by the time they go to school. Coupled with this, the vaccine is not always 100% protective with around 9 out of 10 vaccinated protected. Further, some children with underlying immune system concerns are unable to receive the vaccine.

Parents and health providers are being urged to check that all children have received the appropriate vaccinations against measles. “We could be seeing the beginning of an epidemic”, said Dr Turner.


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