Outbreaks of measles, mumps and whooping cough have been reported across Canada, into the United States and throughout Europe. But are these outbreaks of completely preventable, once eradicated diseases going to become commonplace?
Canada’s top doctor, Dr. Theresa Tam, is hoping to reverse the trend and increase herd immunity to stop the rise of measles outbreaks in its tracks.
“The vaccine coverage rate in Canada is not as high as it should be … it’s close to 90 per cent. But we need 95 per cent to be able to protect the population,” Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, told Global News in an interview.
“These outbreaks are occurring and occurring as we speak … it’s possible that we’ll see an increase in [measles cases]. We are keeping up a certain level of vaccine coverage but we need to do better,” she said.
Vaccination, on a whole, is a “key priority” for Tam who recently took the helm as Canada’s top doctor. She said it’s “on the top of the list of priorities.”
While Canada’s uptake of the MMR – measles, mumps, rubella – vaccine sits at about 90 per cent, in some parts of Europe, rates are even lower.
In Romania, for example, the country’s vaccination rate is 86 per cent. The World Health Organization has already counted 2,000 cases of measles there since February 2016.
Of 32 European countries that have had measles cases since February 2016, 22 had measles vaccination rates below 95 per cent just like Canada. (Herd immunity kicks in at 95 per cent – it’s the level at which, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, there are enough people immunized to protect everyone.)
Tam concedes that travel-related cases are concerning, especially with other parts of the world grappling with their own outbreaks of disease.
“Measles is still circulating in many parts of the world and as long as that’s happening, we’re always at risk of importations,” she said.
“The danger is importation of cases that may lead to outbreaks in pockets of under immunized populations in Canada. That’s when we’ll see larger outbreaks,” she explained.
The federal agency looking after health is also worried about misinformation parents may be receiving along with a growing anti-vaccination movement.
The agency is so concerned that it’s pouring $25 million over five years into figuring out novel ways to reach out to Canadian families about the importance of vaccination.
Flu vaccination rates in Canadians under the age of 18 sit at 22 per cent, for example.
“There are some populations where parents have forgotten what it’s like to have infections like measles. It’s very important to remind all parents and Canadians that measles is not a trivial disease,” Tam said.
“Measles has gone off the top of minds for young parents, in particular, and there are people who need more information about the vaccine to convince them this is a good idea,” she conceded.
Measles is considered one of the most contagious infectious diseases. Its potency lies in one of its characteristics – it’s an airborne virus, which means that somebody with measles is expelling the virus when they speak, cough, and sneeze.
The virus is now in tiny particles that float on air currents and make their way into the next victim’s nose, mouth and throat.
They also linger in the air, on doorknobs, and other surfaces for about two hours, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a tropical infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital and the University of Toronto, said that there’s no reason why outbreaks should be occurring in Canada.
“It’s quite concerning because there’s no reason for this. The vaccine is very effective and it’s readily available in a region where people have excellent access to care,” he told Global News.
“This reflects a much larger trend in Western society where people are choosing not to vaccinate themselves and their children. It’s not surprising if we’ll see more outbreaks of completely preventable infections,” he warned.
He said doctors have seen a rise in measles, mumps, and whooping cough over the past five to 10 years.
“It is becoming increasingly common. Physicians five years ago, many in training wouldn’t have seen a case of measles or mumps and now we’re told to be on the lookout,” he said.
The best way to prevent measles is to get inoculated with two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) or measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) immunization. The initial shot is given to a child at 12 to 15 months of age, followed by a second dose between 18 months and four to six years of age.
Adults whose immunizations aren’t up to date should receive at least one dose of the vaccine, although two is preferable.
— With files from Patrick Cain and the Canadian Press