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B.C. measles case prompts health officials to urge vaccination ahead of spring break

A case of measles in the Vancouver Coastal health region is related to travel, prompting B.C. health officials to urge vaccination ahead of spring break.
A measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is shown on a countertop at a pediatric clinic in Greenbrae, Calif. on Feb. 6, 2015. Measles outbreaks internationally have health officials in British Columbia encouraging people to check their immunization records if they plan to travel abroad during spring break. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Eric Risberg

Island Health says it’s receiving more inquiries about measles as the province records its first case since 2019 amid a spate of outbreaks internationally, prompting vaccination reminders to parents and spring-break travellers.

The case in the Vancouver Coastal health region is related to travel and involved a child under age 10, said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

Premier David Eby said confirmation of a measles case in a B.C. child is “terrifying” for parents with infant children.

Eby said infants too young to be vaccinated rely on others to be vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella. “Without those vaccinations, you’re putting infant children in our province at risk of very, very serious illness.”

B.C. Centre of Disease Control data shows 79.9 per cent of seven-year-olds in the province had their measles vaccines in 2020.

On Vancouver Island, measles vaccination uptake rates range from 81.3 per cent in the south Island to 77.3 per cent in central Vancouver Island and 80.3 per cent in the north.

Eby joined Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, and Henry in encouraging people to get vaccinated before travelling abroad.

“We should not have diseases that should be eliminated in British Columbia like measles flaring up like we’ve seen in other parts of the world,” Eby said at an unrelated news conference in Victoria.

At least 16 measles cases have been reported so far this year elsewhere in Canada, compared with 12 for all of 2023. Ten cases have been confirmed in Montreal, five in Ontario and one in Saskatchewan.

Henry raised concerns about vaccination levels at home and abroad.

“It is concerning that in many countries where the public health systems are not very strong that the measles vaccinations have lagged,” she said in an interview Monday.

“We’ve been doing quite a lot of work in Canada and here in B.C. to try to make up for the immunization that children might have missed in 2020 and 2021.”

Unvaccinated communities are at high risk of outbreaks, as was the case in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver in 2014, said Henry, adding that undervaccination is also a concern.

“Measles is so infectious that in school settings in particular it can spread so quickly. The challenge is it spreads before people know they’re sick with it. Four days before the rash starts to four days after the rash starts you can be infectious,” she said.

The virus starts with symptoms similar to a cold or flu before the rash appears.

It can also cause severe illness in children, Henry said, potentially leading to pneumonia or encephalitis. “And it’s so easily preventable.”

Eby issued a rebuke Monday to people “trafficking in misinformation about vaccines,” saying they “make us safe, they make us healthier, and have eliminated diseases like polio.

In B.C., the measles vaccine is given in two doses — first as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine at about 12 months, and then around the time school starts as the measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (MMRV) vaccine.

Some provinces provide the vaccine for varicella, or chickenpox, separately.

The first dose provides between 90 to 93 per cent protection against measles and the second dose gives a lifelong boost, Henry said.

The largest immunization campaign across the country before the COVID-19 pandemic involved a catchup for the measles vaccine in 1997, she added.

Babies as young as six months should be vaccinated against measles before travelling to countries where the disease is spreading, says a joint bulletin issued Monday by Henry’s office, the provincial government and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

Children between the ages of 12 months and four years can also get their second dose before travelling outside the country, it says.

Kids ages four and older can be vaccinated by a pharmacist, and if it’s their first dose, immunization is best at least two weeks before travel to give their bodies enough time to build immunity, it adds.

Vaccine appointments can be booked through public health units, community health centres or nursing stations as well as some primary care providers, but it’s recommended that people call first to check if the measles vaccine is available.

Adults can also be vaccinated by a pharmacist but may already have protection from childhood vaccination or from having had measles, but they should ensure they have received two doses of a measles-containing vaccine if they were born in 1970 or later.

People born before 1970 do not need to be vaccinated because they have immunity to measles from prior exposure, before vaccination was widely available, Henry said.

“I was getting calls from people in their 80s saying: ‘Do I need to get a vaccine?’ The answer is no.”

Students in Quebec started spring break this week while those in B.C. and Ontario will be off as of March 18. Schools elsewhere are closed for spring break in March or April.

Tam has strongly advised Canadians to be vaccinated with two doses of the measles vaccine, especially before travelling.

“As we head into the spring break travel season, I am concerned that the global surge in measles activity, combined with the decline in measles vaccine coverage among school-aged children in Canada, could lead to an increase in imported measles cases,” she said in a statement issued Feb. 23.

“Although measles has been eliminated in Canada, cases can still occur here when an individual who is not fully vaccinated has travelled to or from a country where measles is circulating,” the statement says.

The World Health Organization reported a 79-per-cent increase in the number of global measles cases in 2023 compared with the previous year.

— With files from Cindy Harnett, Times Colonist