Let’s get the vaccination conversation going

Unvaccinated children are susceptible to measles and can pass it along, especially to babies who are too young to receive the vaccine.

There have been two cases of measles in the Upper Fraser Valley and another 100 suspected cases are out there. By all accounts the outbreak could be linked to a lack of vaccinations in school age children.

What’s with that?

There’s nothing nice about getting the measles. It is a highly contagious and potentially severe airborne viral infection. Symptoms include cough, runny nose, inflamed eyes, sore throat, fever, and a red, blotchy rash.

Thirty per cent of children contracting measles can develop complications that require hospitalization such as pneumonia which, for the very young, can be life-threatening. They can also develop diarrhea or ear infections that can permanently impair hearing. According to the Center for Disease Control, one in one thousand children may also develop encephalitis or inflammation of the brain that can lead to brain damage. According to Fraser Health, one in 3,000 cases is fatal.

The measles virus belongs to the genus Morbillivirus and it is most closely related to the rinderpest virus, a pathogen that infects cattle. Morbillivirus also includes canine distemper and viruses common to dolphins and porpoises. It’s thought that the measles virus evolved in an environment where people lived in close proximity to cattle and its infection rate accelerated with the widespread occupation of farming centuries ago. The virus diverged to become the distinctly human virus around the 11th or 12th century.

Worldwide, the virus now infects some 30 million people annually with a death rate of around 197,000 primarily in developing countries. In the pre-vaccine era, 90 per cent of children under 15 contracted measles and in regions of the world with no vaccinations or inadequate medical care the virus remains a major cause of mortality in children.

Through effective vaccination programs, measles was all but eradicated in North America by 2000. But more recently, with parents opting not to vaccinate their children, the virus is raising its ugly head again. The infection is on the rise not only in B.C. but Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and P.E.I.

Unvaccinated children are highly susceptible to contracting the infection and passing it along, especially to babies who are too young to receive the vaccine. Their susceptibility gives the virus a helping hand to spread its contamination.

I’ve never really understood the refusenik approach to not vaccinating children. When it was time for the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shots, my kids got them. No brainer there. The argument that the vaccine causes autism and other disabilities has been thoroughly dispelled by many scientific studies. One author of a small U.K. study in 1998 tried to make the link. The study got a lot of short-term traction until 10 of his 13 co-authors walked and the publishing journal retracted the article.

According to a UNICEF 2013 report, in 2011 123 countries immunized over 90 per cent of infants against measles. Between 2000 and 2011, vaccinations resulted in a 71 per cent drop in measles deaths worldwide. However, the organization identified only 84 per cent of Canadian children receiving vaccines for measles, polio and DPT3 (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus).

Immunization has some dollar sense. Increasing vaccinations in72 of the world’s poorest countries could save 6.4 million lives, avoid $6.2 billion in treatment costs and $145 billion in productivity losses in the next decade.

Measles is a reportable condition and any child showing the slightest signs of the infection needs to see a doctor quickly for treatment.

It’s time to get the vaccination conversation going again. Health Minister Terry Lake may be a long way from making vaccinations mandatory for school age children but that could change – quickly – with more outbreaks.

Meanwhile the health of unprotected children hangs in the balance.