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Measles risk higher in some Winnipeg neighbourhoods

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Photo of Dr. Bunmi Fatoye. DR. BUNMI FATOYE
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Thursday, April 18, 2019

Recent reports of measles outbreaks on Vancouver Island, Montreal, Ottawa and New York may have many Winnipeg parents and health-care providers wondering: could the same thing happen here?

The answer is yes.

Manitoba has been relatively lucky when it comes to measles, with only a handful of cases reported over the last few years.

But a recent research project carried out by the Manitoba Public Health suggests the risk of an outbreak here may be greater than most people realize.

According to the data analyzed late last year by public health, only 67 per cent of Winnipeg children born in 2008 have received the recommended two doses of measles vaccine. That’s well below the Manitoba average of 73 per cent.

The numbers represents a serious erosion of “herd immunity,” which is the term used to describe the protection afforded when a sizable proportion of a given population – say 90 to 95 per cent – are vaccinated against various infections such as measles   

The relatively low immunization rate means that as many as one in three Winnipeg children born in 2008 may be at risk for measles. And the risk may be even higher depending on which part of the city a child lives. The numbers show that rates in the city range from a low of 55 per cent in St. Vital North to a high of 76 per cent in St. James-Assiniboia West and River East North.

The recent surge in outbreaks of measles in Canada and the United States is concerning.   

Public health officials are often caught between a rock and hard place when it comes to raising awareness about potential public health issues such as measles. I don’t want to panic the public about a potential health problem. But, I don’t want to underplay the potential for a serious outbreak, either.

In this case, the facts speak for themselves. Measles is a serious public health threat. And while most children will recover from this infectious disease, kids with measles are at risk for serious complications that can affect the lungs and brain, and may even cause death. 

Reducing the risk of a measles outbreak in our city is both an individual and community responsibility. So what can you do?

First and foremost, make sure you and your children’s immunizations are up to date. It is recommended that children receive two doses of the measles vaccine, the first at 12 to 15 months of age and the second at four to six years of age. The effectiveness of a single dose is estimated to be 85 to 95 per cent. With a second dose, efficacy is almost 100 per cent. 

If you are travelling, talk to your health-care provider and ask whether your child is properly immunized. If you aren’t sure about which immunizations are due when, check the schedule online at Manitoba Health’s website at www.gov.mb.ca/health/publichealth/cdc/div/schedules.html

Second, make an effort to learn more about the measles vaccine. Misinformation campaigns, particularly on social media, have been one of the attempted measures to erode trust in vaccines. Fortunately, social media platforms are beginning to take action to correct the dissemination of misinformation. But we must all do more to build trust. It is now more important than ever that people address their concerns and educate themselves about the role immunization plays in preventing measles, as well as other vaccine preventable diseases.   

Health professionals can also do more. It is important that health-care providers assess the vaccination needs of their practice populations and develop strategies to address the immunization gap.

Public health officials across the country are doing their part by supporting National Immunization Awareness Week, which starts Saturday, April 20. It’s the perfect time to talk to your health-care provider to address any concerns you may have about immunization.

In addition, people looking for information online can visit Immunize Canada’s website at https://immunize.ca. The website offers numerous resources, including detailed information on various infectious diseases and a parent’s guide to immunization.

Dr. Bunmi Fatoye is a medical officer of health with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Thursday, April 18, 2019.

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