Why measles is making a comeback in SA and worldwide

Learn more about the resurgence of this highly contagious disease in South Africa and globally.

27 July 2015
by Stefan de Clerk

In December 2014, an outbreak of measles at the Disneyland theme park in California led to nearly 150 people being infected with the disease. This was cause for great concern, since the US had been measles-free since 2000.

However, this outbreak wasn’t isolated to the US, as measles outbreaks have popped up all around the world including Europe and even here in South Africa. In fact, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases issued an alert in December 2014 after a surge in laboratory-confirmed cases of this highly infectious disease. According to Dr Melinda Suchard, head of the Centre for Vaccines and Immunology at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the last outbreak of measles in 2009 to 2011 infected more than 18 000 South Africans.

Then in February 2017, there was an outbreak in Stellenbosch where nine cases were confirmed amongst learners in three local high schools. In an effort to prevent the further spread of the disease, the Western Cape Health Department vaccinated 15,000 pupils and children against measles in Stellenbosch and Drakenstein in February.

Why has there been a resurgence?

The Disneyland outbreak researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital pinned down exactly why a disease thought to have been eradicated in the USA had made such a big comeback – they found that a drop in vaccination rates was responsible for its rapid spread.

Worryingly, this seems to be a worldwide trend, as global vaccination rates have been dropping year on year, even in developed countries with well-funded vaccination programmes. And with a disease as contagious as measles, high vaccination coverage is very important.

“Everyone needs to be vaccinated so that individuals within the group who are not immune, such that those who are too young for vaccination or cancer patients with weakened immune systems, are unlikely to come into contact with the disease,” stresses Dr Suchard.

How infectious is it really?

Measles is an extremely infectious disease, and according to the American Centre for Disease Control, there’s a 90% chance you’ll get it if you’re exposed and haven’t been vaccinated. It usually spreads by sneezing or coughing, the reason it’s so infectious is because it can survive in the air or on a surface for up to two hours. Once you catch the disease you remain contagious from a couple of days before you start showing symptoms until up to a week after.

“One measles case can infect up to 18 other non-immune individuals,” warns Dr Suchard.

Damage done: The anti-vaxxers

The so-called 'anti-vaxxers' are a group of people, mostly parents, who refuse to have their children vaccinated against diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough. They believe vaccination can lead to autism, and that the chemicals used in vaccinations aren’t healthy for their children, despite solid scientific evidence that proves the contrary.

However, their concerns over the health of their own children are putting others at risk, and according to the researchers into the Disney outbreak, these anti-vaxxers were largely to blame. “Anti-vax sentiments grow when communities forget how dangerous measles can be, and become complacent about the disease,” says Dr Suchard.

When should you get vaccinated? Can you get vaccinated as an adult?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), children should get their first measles shot at around nine months and a booster shot at 18 months, especially considering young children are most vulnerable to infection.

However, measles poses a threat to people of all ages and the disease is especially severe when contracted as an adult. Thankfully the measles vaccine is as good for adults as it is for children, and if you weren’t vaccinated as a child, it’s not too late to get your shot.

How Clicks Clinics can help you

If you’re uncertain about your vaccination history, or if you would like to get your child vaccinated, visit your nearest Clicks Clinic, and speak to one of our trained healthcare professionals about the measles vaccine. To book an appointment, call 0860 254 257 or book online at Clicks Clinics

For more information on this article, read these articles

Substandard Vaccination Compliance and the 2015 Measles Outbreak

Anti-vaccine movements not just a US problem

WHO's guidance regardings treating measles in children

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