How to protect yourself when travelling to a measles outbreak area

More than 41,000 measles cases have been reported in Europe during the first half of 2018, already dwarfing last year's total.

Measles is one of the most easily-transmitted diseases in the world. Droplets containing the virus can linger in the air for two hours after an infected person coughs – ready to attack anyone who passes through that room.

That’s why if you’re travelling to an area that’s experiencing a measles outbreak, you need protection. And the best way to do that is to make sure you’re vaccinated, say doctors.

“The best way to protect yourself against measles is vaccination, period. That is the best, and frankly the only way, to protect yourself against measles,” said Dr. Sarah Wilson, a public health doctor who works in immunization for Public Health Ontario.

READ MORE: 37 dead as measles cases spike in Europe

In Europe, which is in the middle of an outbreak, 41,000 people have gotten sick with the virus in the first half of this year. At least 37 people have died.

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Most European cases were in Ukraine, but France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Russia and Serbia all saw more than 1,000 measles infections so far this year.

And in Indonesia, religious authorities have recently come out against the vaccine, which they say contains ingredients derived from pigs, forbidden in Islam – although they make some allowance for temporary use of the shot for the protection of public health.

The Canadian government has also issued travel warnings about measles in Venezuela.

READ MORE: Fatwa issued against measles vaccine in Muslim-majority Indonesia

Making sure you’re vaccinated is crucial to make sure you don’t get the disease, but also that you don’t bring it with you back to Canada, said Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa.

“When we do get measles outbreaks in Canada, they’re often due to importations from overseas. So I think we need to be vigilant at least while this is happening.”

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Some people can’t be vaccinated due to medical conditions, he said, and very young infants also can’t get the shot. So vaccination helps to protect them too.

WATCH: What’s in the measles vaccine?

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Adults travelling overseas need to make sure they have had two doses of the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, said Sarah Wilson. This brings the vaccine’s effectiveness to close to 100 per cent. Some adults, like those born between 1970 and 1977, might not have received two doses at school and should get another dose before travel, she said.

She also recommends that parents vaccinate their babies who are between six and 12 months old. Although generally babies receive their first dose of the vaccine at 12 months, infants who are travelling should get vaccinated sooner.

READ MORE: What parents need to know about herd immunity

It’s still possible, in extremely rare cases, to catch measles even when vaccinated, said Kumanan Wilson. “If 10,000 people are exposed, if you have 97 per cent effectiveness, even if you have 99, you’re still going to get a lot of cases of measles in vaccinated people.”

That doesn’t mean the vaccine isn’t working though. And while the Public Health Agency of Canada also recommends frequent handwashing and carefully coughing into your arm on their website about measles prevention, those measures aren’t enough to prevent the virus, said Sarah Wilson.

“I don’t want to discourage people from all of those practices in terms of good hand hygiene and cough etiquette and good nutrition,” she said. “But those measures are inadequate to protect someone going into an outbreak area from contracting measles.”

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“Vaccination is the way to protect oneself from measles.”

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-With files from the Associated Press and Josh Elliott

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