Are you at risk? Measles spike prompts immunisation warnings

With the number of measles cases in Australia surging towards a five-year high, we’re being urged to check our immunisation history. 

Nearly 100 people have been diagnosed with measles so far in Australia this year, not far off the total diagnosed for the whole of 2018.

Measles is a highly infectious viral illness spread through coughing and sneezing. It can lead to serious health complications, including potentially fatal infections of the lungs and brain.

Just five years ago, Australia was declared measles-free, with the high rate of vaccinations keeping the virus largely kept at bay.

Australia impacted by global outbreaks

Immunisation specialist at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance Dr Lucy Deng says Aussies travelling overseas are bringing the infection back home, often unknowingly.

“Measles is incredibly contagious – if you’re not fully vaccinated and you’re in the same vicinity as someone who has measles, you’ve a 90 per cent chance of catching it,” she says.

Globally, Africa has witnessed the most dramatic recent rise in measles cases, up 700 per cent – with Ukraine, Madagascar and India among other countries also reporting “many deaths”.

The global outbreaks have prompted the World Health Organisation to list vaccine hesitancy as a top 10 threat to global health in 2019.

Measles symptoms to look out for

Measles starts with fever, runny nose, a cough, red eyes and sore throat, followed by a red blotchy rash that spreads all over the body.

Symptoms usually start about 10 to 12 days after catching the virus and last for around 14 days.

You can be contagious for days before you get the tell-tale rash, meaning you can spread the virus without even knowing you have it, Dr Deng advises.

“The virus can also survive on surfaces for up to two hours, meaning that as well as getting it from the air, you can catch it by touching infected surfaces,” she says.

Born between 1966 and 1994?

You need two doses of the measles vaccine to be protected against the virus, so for adults born between 1966 and 1994 that may mean a catch-up dose.

“While we’ve had the vaccine in Australia since 1968, a two-dose program was only introduced in 1992,” Dr Deng explains.

“That means a very large cohort of Australians, many of whom love to travel, think they’re safe because they’ve been told by their parents they’ve been vaccinated, but that may not be the case.”

The measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine is included in the National Immunisation Program and there’s no harm in having it if you’re unsure whether you’ve had two doses.

Time to check your immunisation history

Dr Deng says the immunisation warning is timely in the lead-up to World Immunisation Week, which is promoting vaccines to protect people of all ages against disease.

The theme of this year’s campaign is Protected Together: Vaccines Work! And the immunisation specialist says: “It’s a great chance to remind everyone that these diseases we haven’t seen for a while are coming back because we’ve seen a drop in vaccination rates around the world.

“Despite all the gains, we’re still seeing outbreaks of measles, diphtheria and various other vaccine-preventable diseases across the world, with many children affected.

“World Immunisation Week is an excellent initiative to get the dialogue going and have an open discussion about how vaccines work and to answer any questions people may have.”

The Australian Government’s National Immunisation Program Schedule has all the info you’ll need on which immunisations you need, and when.

If in doubt, check in with your GP or health professional.

The World Health Organisation’s World Immunisation Week starts on April 24.

Written by Liz McGrath.