More than 5 000 people died of measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year in what the World Health Organisation (WHO) regards as one of the disease’s most serious outbreaks.
In the Pacific island nation of Samoa, government has just announced the end of a state of emergency after more than 5 600 people contracted measles and 81 people died of the highly infectious disease – many of them children younger than five.
The government announcement on December 28 ended the emergency order, which had been in place since November and included the closing of schools, limiting public gatherings and restricting travel.
The US and the UK were also hit by the measles epidemic last year after both countries thought they had eliminated the disease.
An outbreak of measles was also reported in Limpopo, with three cases recorded in October.
According to the WHO, the incidence of measles outbreaks increased by 300% in the first three months of last year when compared with the same period the year before.
Measles vaccinations reduced the incidence of the disease by 80% between 2000 and 2017, according to a WHO report.
In 2000, 72% of all children were vaccinated against the disease and 85% were vaccinated in 2017.
“The ideal is a 95% vaccination rate to protect the population against outbreaks,” said Dr Melinda Suchard, head of the Centre for Vaccines and Immunology at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg.
At this vaccination rate, an illness can be eliminated, which means it is limited to a few cases in specific areas.
The wild polio virus, which paralysed 350 000 children a year in the 1980s, was eliminated in this way. In 2018, only 30 cases were reported in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The only disease that has so far not been completely eradicated by vaccination is smallpox.
Measles cases are increasing again worldwide because of a hesitation to vaccinate and limited access to the medication, especially in poor countries, the WHO has warned.
Hesitation to vaccinate is when parents refuse to have their children vaccinated, mainly because of a faulty, unscientific study in the 1980s that linked measles vaccinations to autism.
This myth has been repeatedly repudiated with scientific studies, the latest being done in Denmark.
Researchers there looked at the data of 657 461 children born between 1999 and 2000. Of these, 6 517 children were diagnosed with autism – the incidence was the same among vaccinated and unvaccinated children.
“The idea that [measles] vaccination causes autism is still going around despite the results of this and other thorough studies,” Dr Anders Hviid of the Staten Serum Institut in Copenhagen told a Danish newspaper.
“Parents are still confronted with this on social media and by statements from politicians and celebrities.”
Suchard warned that people should get their medical information from reliable sources because “the public sometimes struggles to distinguish facts from fiction”.
Meanwhile, the WHO has welcomed steps that social media platforms such as Facebook have announced to limit users’ exposure to so-called anti-vaxxers, a highly controversial movement that spreads dangerous myths about vaccinations.
Accurate statistics for the vaccination rate in South Africa are not available, but an international study by the authoritative Wellcome Trust in the UK shows that there is also a distrust of vaccinations here.
The Wellcome Global Monitor conducted research among 144 000 people in 140 countries.
According to this study, only 82% of South Africans believe vaccinations are safe, compared with 91% of Nigerians and 94% of Rwandans.
To make measles vaccinations as effective as possible, people must be vaccinated against the disease twice, according to the WHO. The first is 93% effective and the second is 97% effective.
Measles is the most contagious disease in the world.
“Someone with measles can cough and walk out of a room. Someone else who walks into the room a little while later can get measles,” said Suchard.
“Measles is also a far more serious disease than the others usually referred to as children’s diseases.”
According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 20 children with measles can get pneumonia. About one in 1 000 get meningitis, which can cause deafness and brain damage. Two out of every 1 000 children with measles will die from it.
Suchard said it was never too late to catch up with measles vaccinations.
- Children are vaccinated against measles when they are six months old and again when they are a year old. It can also be done later if you did not get the vaccination as a baby.
- At the ages of six and 12, children receive tetanus and diphtheria injections.
- At the age of nine, two vaccinations for the human papilloma virus are given six months apart.
For complete information on the vaccination schedule for babies and children in South Africa, visit the National Institute for Communicable Diseases’ website at nicd.ac.za
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