April 30, 2014 3:52 pm

What B.C. doctors learned from the province’s measles outbreak

A nurse uses a syringe to prepare an injection of the combined Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination.

GEOFF CADDICK/AFP/Getty Images

As a measles outbreak takes off in Alberta, the spread of the highly contagious disease in B.C.’s Fraser Valley region is winding down.

Earlier this week, Fraser Health authorities declared the weeks-long outbreak of measles over. In about a month, more than 400 cases of measles were recorded.

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READ MORE: Measles outbreak in Fraser Valley declared over

What do health officials say is the takeaway message from the largest bout of measles the province has seen in 30 years?

For starters, it’s that there’s a silver lining: it could have been a lot worse.

The outbreak took off in the eastern Fraser Valley region after a family returned from the Netherlands, where cases of measles swept the Dutch nation this past year. The majority of the B.C. cases came from the Dutch community in which religious reasons kept residents from vaccinating.

READ MORE: Anti-vaccination movement means preventable diseases making a comeback

Only a handful of the measles cases didn’t come from the community, according to Dr. Monika Naus, Medical Director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s Immunization Programs.

Dr. Michelle Murti, Fraser Health medical health officer, says that the lack of spread is a testament to high rates of vaccine uptake in surrounding areas.

“We have lots of importations from other countries where measles is more common, so we have people exposing others,” Murti told Global News.

“Fortunately because of good immunization, it doesn’t spread,” she said.

READ MORE: How should health officials reverse an anti-vaxxer movement?

The group, part of the Netherlands Reformed Congregation, was also very cooperative with quarantining and isolating measles patients when necessary to stifle spread.

But in the thick of it, it was unclear to doctors just how prevalent the outbreak could have become.

“It was quite anxiety-provoking,” Naus told Global News.

“It doesn’t mean that under slightly different circumstances we couldn’t have had an outbreak that affected a broader swath of the population. At this point in time, it hasn’t resulted in a province-wide epidemic, which is what we definitely feared.”

READ MORE: What caused a whooping cough epidemic? Scientists blame parents

Outbreaks have occurred in the past: in 1997, about 200 cases were reported around Simon Fraser University. In 2010, during the Winter Games timeframe, pockets of measles cases were documented.

Naus said that this year’s outbreak points to susceptible regions of the province.

“We have a very vulnerable population in our midst and these types of events will occur on a recurrent basis as long as you have these populations. The next time around it might be rubella, for instance,” she said.

In 2008, mumps was passed around in pockets of B.C. That turned into a province-wide outbreak. Naus said that health workers should brace for another outbreak of disease in the coming years.

“It’s going to be a recurrent kind of picture,” she cautioned.

READ MORE: 6 vaccination myths debunked

Health officials should consider watching trends in other parts of the world, Naus suggested.

“In this case, we had a warning because [of] the outbreak began in the Netherlands. Public health departments are in a position to put the community at home on alert and also make sure health care providers are on the lookout for potential cases of measles,” she said.

On Tuesday, with a total of 22 cases of measles now confirmed in the province, Alberta Health Services officially declared an outbreak of the disease in Calgary, Edmonton and central Alberta.

READ MORE: Alberta declares measles outbreak

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© Shaw Media, 2014

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