Australia

Parents warned to stop being 'complacent' with vaccination after measles outbreak

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The Australian Medical Association says the highly contagious disease is preventable but could have deadly consequences if contracted.

A measles alert has been issued for Perth residents after a person infected with the illness visited two public venues last week.

The Department of Health said people who visited Perth Zoo on January 1, or Perth's IKEA store at lunchtime on January 2, should remain on the lookout for measles symptoms which could develop in the coming weeks.

This comes after a series of measles cases in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia over the past month.

Australian Medical Association President, Dr Tony Bartone, said the recent outbreaks are alarming.

"We only need to go back 30, 40, 50 years to see how much we have advanced in terms of public health because of the immunisation program we have in Australia," he said.

"The moment we let down our guard and become complacent, we run the risk of these epidemics, of these attacks, of these outbreaks, becoming commonplace again."

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defined measles as a serious and highly contagious disease that can cause debilitating or fatal complications.

David Durrheim, a professor of public health medicine at the University of Newcastle, said early symptoms resemble those of a cold.

"The tell-tale symptoms are a very high fever and generally that persists for about 3-4 days before there's the classical reddish, measles rash that actually can erupt right across the body," he said.

"Often in that early period, there's a cough, there's conjunctivitis, and other symptoms like a runny nose are quite common."

Three NSW measles cases in under a week
Three NSW measles cases were reported in under a week
CDC Global (CC BY 2.0)

Many people who have measles can recover fully with rest, fluids, and analgesics to ease the fever.

But there are cases where complications arise, and the measles turn into life-threatening pneumonia or encephalitis (swelling of the brain).

Professor Durrheim said there is no outright cure to the illness and instead the focus should be on prevention.

"The most important measure we have is vaccination and so the important thing is to prevent measles," he said.

"The vaccine that is available, if two doses are administered, is highly effective in providing life-long immunity."

A 2018 WHO report revealed that in the past 19 years more than 21 million lives have been saved through measles immunisations.

However, the number of reported cases has increased by more than 30 per cent worldwide since 2016.

In the United States, 112 cases were reported since September last year, in the largest recorded outbreak in New York State's recent history.

Meanwhile in Europe, there were around 60,000 measles cases last year, more than double those of 2017 and the highest this century.

Professor David Durrheim said higher rates of vaccination are needed to create the much-needed herd immunity.

"With the measles virus, you need it in the order of about 95 per cent of people to be vaccinated - which is the case in many parts of Australia - for the outbreak to rapidly die out and not to spread," he said.

"There are areas where the vaccination coverage is not 95 per cent but closer to 85 per cent and in those areas the outbreaks can persist for much longer periods of time."

Australian Medical Association vice president Dr Tony Bartone.
Australian Medical Association vice president Dr Tony Bartone.
SBS

AMA president Tony Bartone said vaccination is vital.

"To anyone thinking that they would not like to proceed with vaccination of their children, I ask them to seriously sit down and talk to their family doctor," he said. 

"Seriously look at the research and the proven scientific evidence which shows that vaccination is safe, is effective and is the only way to prevent against recurrences of these conditions."

Experts say people with compromised immunity - such as the very young, the very old or the very sick - rely on herd immunity for protection as they cannot be vaccinated themselves.

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