Measles outbreak: What you need to know

Why is Australia seeing outbreaks of measles and what can you do to protect your family?

In the past year, several parts of Australia have seen measles outbreaks.

Eleven cases of the contagious disease were confirmed by Victoria’s Chief Health Office in October, with a further case confirmed in the state in February (2018). There were also measles cases in Sydney, Canberra and Queensland last year.

The World Health Organisation declared Australia had eliminated measles in 2014, so most cases are brought in by people who have travelled overseas. But once in a community, measles spreads easily if vaccine uptake is low.

How measles spreads

Measles is spread through infected droplets – when a person with measles sneezes or coughs, they spread droplets carrying the virus. If someone who is not immunised inhales those droplets or picks them up from a contaminated surface and touches their mouth or nose, they’re at risk of infection.

In some cases, measles can lead to complications including middle ear infection, pneumonia and, more rarely, brain infection. Children and chronically ill people are most at risk of these kinds of complications.

Signs and symptoms

Fever, tiredness, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, sore eyes and a blotchy red rash that spreads down the body and that lasts between four to seven days are among symptoms.

People are infectious around five days before, and up to four to five days after, the rash appears.

How to protect against measles

The best protection is immunisation, with the measles mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine included in the National Immunisation Program. Children receive this vaccine at 12 and 18 months of age.

But adults aged 26 to 52 have lower immunisation coverage, and most measles outbreaks affect this age group. So it’s a good idea for anyone born since 1966 to discuss their measles risk with a GP.

“There is one weak link in the chain of protection and that’s adult immunisation,” says Professor Robert Booy, an immunisation and infectious diseases expert at the National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance.

“While almost everyone has their children immunised these days, we are ignorant and much less organised about adult immunisation. There’s no harm in having the MMR vaccine if you’re unsure whether you’ve had two doses.”

Written by Sarah Marinos