Australians aged between 20 and 53 who are travelling overseas are being urged to check their measles vaccination history and if necessary get an additional dose, as authorities report a dramatic surge in new outbreaks.
One hundred and eighty-three cases of measles have been reported in Australia this year, in all states and territories, up from 103 confirmed cases in 2018.
In the past month alone, there have been confirmed cases in Perth, Sydney, the Gold Coast and Cairns, while the bulk of notifications for the year have come from NSW (54) and Victoria (37).
There are also huge outbreaks on Australia’s doorstep, particularly in The Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and New Zealand, which has identified 1200 cases of measles so far this year.
Professor David Durrheim from the University of Newcastle said most measles cases in Australia were coming from people travelling overseas to places where the infection is spreading, and bringing it back.
He said the outbreaks in New Zealand were “unprecedented” and were “causing a massive impact on their health system”.
Health authorities warn that outbreaks are happening in parts of the world that many Australians might consider ‘low-risk’ for getting sick, including parts of Europe and the United States.
A new public information campaign showing the horrors of the disease also urges people to check their vaccination history, and if necessary get an additional dose to ensure they are immune.
This is particularly important for people aged between 20 and 53, most of whom never received the second dose that is now considered essential for ensuring immunity.
“There was a period from after 1966 when they only used one dose and those people are only partially protected,” said Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist at Melbourne’s Alfred hospital. But if a patient couldn’t establish if they had had the two doses, there was no harm in having the extra shot, he said.
When asked how may Australians were under-vaccinated for measles, he said there were no figures available.
Australian kids are now vaccinated at 12 months, with the second dose administered at 18 months, but Prof Durrheim said children as young as six months could be safely given the vaccine if they were travelling to areas with measles outbreaks.
He said 110,000 children died around the world due to measles last year.
In the new campaign, former Australian of the Year Professor Ian Frazer said “One in 1000 people that gets measles dies from the measles, and five out of 1000 will get brain damage, usually permanent and severe, so this is not a disease that you wish your children to have.”
More than 93 per cent of Australian two-year-olds have had the combined measles mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, data shows.
Dr Sonya Bennett from Queensland Health described the measles as “literally one of the most contagious infectious diseases we know”.
“You can be in a room with someone with measles and if you’re not immune then you are almost certain to catch it,” she said.
Professor Raina MacIntyre from the University of New South Wales said there was also a need for hospitals to review their patient protocols as many transmissions were happening in waiting rooms as sick people waited for assistance.
“We really need to diagnose quickly and isolate,” she said. “It’s an area we need to do better in.”
Doctors warn that the first symptoms of measles can look like many other diseases. The symptoms can include fever, runny nose, cough, conjunctivitis and a general feeling of being unwell — all days before the infection’s most obvious symptom of an all-over rash.
While you can only get the measles once, the infection can leave you more vulnerable to other serious illnesses for up to three years afterwards.