Measles -- a childhood viral infection that used to be a serious problem in Canada a half-century ago -- is making a comeback.
In the rest of the world, especially developing countries, measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children. Approximately 122,000 people died from measles in 2012 -- mostly children under the age of five. That's more than 300 deaths a day.
In Manitoba, there have been four publicly confirmed cases of measles during the last month, including two this week. In addition, there have been news reports of up to 320 confirmed cases in British Columbia and 11 cases each in Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Although the numbers in Canada are relatively small, they are troubling.
As viral infections go, measles can be nasty. Symptoms include a red, blotchy rash, high fever, red eyes, runny nose and cough that can last for up to two weeks. Some people also get a middle-ear infection or pneumonia. Although rare, measles can lead to swelling of the brain, which can cause seizures, hearing loss, brain damage or even death. In other words, it is not something to be taken lightly.
Canada has done a good job of keeping measles at bay over the last few decades. That's largely because the provinces launched major programs in the 1960s and 1970s to immunize children against measles and other infections, including mumps, rubella and whooping cough (pertussis).
The recent surge in cases of measles, however, suggests there is still more work to do in terms of raising awareness about the importance of getting immunized. Health officials believe some of the people recently diagnosed with measles picked up the infection while travelling in countries where measles remains a significant problem. Once they returned home, the virus was able to spread in persons and communities that have relatively low immunization rates.
Therein lies the problem. Although immunization rates throughout Canada remain relatively high, there are areas in the country where rates are too low and viruses such as measles can spread more easily.
Manitoba is not immune to the problem. Although the province's overall immunization rate is reasonably high -- about 80 per cent --most experts would agree the rate for measles, mumps and rubella should be at least 95 per cent to keep these infections at bay.
Complicating the issue is the fact there are pockets of people in any community who are either opposed to immunizations (some religious groups, for example) or unaware immunizations are available (new Canadians).
How important is a high immunization rate in combating the spread of infection?
Consider this: The Centers for Disease Control in the United States says vaccination programs resulted in a 78 per cent drop in deaths due to measles between 2000 and 2012 worldwide. The lesson here is a simple one: Immunization remains the best way to prevent infections such as measles as well as a variety of other preventable illnesses, including mumps, whooping cough and influenza.
As a result, it is vitally important for individuals to ensure they are up to date on their immunizations, particularly if they are planning to travel to countries where immunization rates for measles and the like are comparatively low. But even if not planning to travel, parents should take care to ensure their children's immunizations are all up to date.
This is a fairly easy thing to do. All child and adult vaccinations are recorded in the Manitoba immunization registry, which your health-care provider can access on the Manitoba Health eChart system. Take the time to make sure you and your family are up to date on your shots. Not only will you reduce your risk of getting sick, you will also help prevent the spread of potentially dangerous viruses such as measles.
Dr. Pierre Plourde is a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.