Provincial health officials are getting word out that two cases of measles have been found to date in Manitoba. On the face of it, that's little cause for widespread alarm because the majority of Manitobans are not at risk, either due to vaccination or past exposure to the disease. There are pockets in the population, however, that are at risk, some unnecessarily.
Some people were not immunized or exposed as children to measles, a disease that is relatively benign, but can cause encephalitis or death in one of 1,000 cases. Most of those at risk are people who moved here -- toddlers born in Manitoba have very high immunization rates, but rates fall to as low as 20 per cent for those who moved here.
Further, the rate of those "fully immunized" falls markedly among older children. Some don't get a preschool booster, and older age groups include more immigrants.
Public health officials, appropriately, have warned all parents -- letters and emails from schools were issued this week -- to ensure their kids' shots are up to date.
The message should also be targeted. Vaccination data reveal that almost everyone wants their child protected against polio. But for the other classic childhood diseases, there are regions or neighbourhoods in Manitoba where the public vaccination campaign needs to be redoubled. In Winnipeg, only 64 per cent of seven-year-olds have received their combined diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus shot.
Parsing of the data shows the measles shot, too, can be a tough sell. Less than 70 per cent of seven-year-old Winnipeggers have received all doses, compared to 90 per cent for mumps and rubella. That is telling since the three are offered as a single-shot cocktail.
Younger parents have never known the terrible toll of childhood disease epidemics; production of vaccines took off in the 1960s. A falling vaccine rate can erode the "herd immunity" that protects those who for health reasons can't be vaccinated, and invite an outbreak that will cause some people to suffer badly.
The measles vaccine is battling the legacy of a fraudulent, discredited paper published in 1998 linking it to autism. Canada, and Manitoba, continue to feel the effects of a lingering suspicion that lends fuel to the agenda of the small, but vigorous anti-vaccination crowd. Manitoba Health must fight back.