Health Unit warns of increased measles possibility during international travel

By Allan Bradbury
Staff Writer

In an update released last Friday, Medical Officer of Health for the Northwestern Health Unit Dr. Kit Young Hoon said that families traveling internationally should ensure that Measles vaccinations are up to date and complete.

According to Young Hoon Measles has been well controlled and essentially eliminated in Canada for 20 years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In Canada and many countries it was considered to be eliminated, meaning that all cases in the country had been infected outside of Canada, Ontario and Quebec have now both had one case reported that have no link to travel which is a sign of community transmission,” Young Hoon said in a statement. “The fact that currently in Canada there have been more cases of Measles reported so far in 2024 than the country saw in 2023 is largely due to the increase in international travel and the disruptions in immunization delivery due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Measles is spread via droplet or airborne transmission, Young Hoon advised.

“The transmission is either airborne or droplets so that means coming in contact with someone or respiratory droplets being inhaled or entering another person’s body,” Young Hoon said. “It’s also airborne transmission so that means it can linger in their and being inhaled can lead to an infection. There’s also a risk from droplet contamination of other products like clothing and so on can also lead to transmission.”

Young Hoon emphasized that Measles is a highly contagious disease, a large majority of those not already vaccinated or who have not had Measles in the past are at risk for infection.

“90 per cent of non-immune people who are exposed to the virus will get sick,” Young Hoon said. “Being in an airplane or other enclosed or indoor space sharing the air with other people exposes everyone in that space to Measles if there’s an infected person present.”

Despite the fact that many places have eliminated it by vaccination, Measles is still among leading causes of death that can be prevented by vaccines.

“Measles can be a severe infection and is still one of the leading causes of vaccine preventable deaths and children worldwide,” Young Hoon said. “Complications of measles include diarrhea, pneumonia, blindness and infection of the brain. Complications such as middle ear infections and Broncopneumonia occur in about 10 per cent of reported cases.”

While there are currently no cases of Measles in the Northwestern Health Unit, Young Hoon cautioned that it may not be the case once travelers start to return from spring break.

Adults born before 1970 are considered to be immune due to the prevalence of the disease at that time; the same cannot be said for those born since, Young Hoon says.

“For those born after 1970 vaccination is the best protection against measles. Our goal at this time is to prevent measles through immunization. We are particularly concerned about children and youth who have not completed their routine immunizations appropriate to their age group,” Young Hoon said. “Individuals or families that are traveling out of Canada should also ensure that they check with their health care provider or the Northwestern Health Units if immunizations may not be up to date.”

The MMR vaccine which covers Measles, Mumps, and Rubella, is a bivalent vaccine meaning it requires two doses to be effective. Young Hoon encouraged anyone who may have only had one dose of the vaccine to get their second to be completely immunized. The first dose is usually given at 12 months with the second dose coming anywhere between 18 months and four-six years old depending on a particular country’s vaccination schedule.

“What we’ve noted is that with the pandemic response, there was a backlog of vaccination efforts and I think in all countries, there is an effort to catch up,” Young Hoon said. “I know we’ve been doing our focused catch up work to make sure that children who did not get vaccinated during that period of time, are getting vaccinated.”

In February Angus Reid released the results of a poll that indicated that one in six parents of minors are “really against” vaccinating their kids, which is four times as many from a 2019 survey.

In response to a question regarding the survey results, Young Hoon emphasized that the MMR vaccine has been used far longer and severe side effects are much fewer than with newer vaccines like the COVID-19 shots.

“So the MMR vaccine is quite different from the COVID vaccine, the MMR vaccine has been utilized for many decades,” Young Hoon said. “When a vaccine is used, there’s ongoing monitoring for any side effects. We do know that it has been extensively used since the 1970s. So we’re talking about five decades. So we have five decades of data, or more looking closely at the vaccine and side effects. It’s known to be a safe vaccine. It’s known to be an extremely effective vaccine. After one dose of the vaccine, you have 85 to 95 per cent protection and after two doses of the vaccine, you have almost 100 per cent protection. Also, the common side effects are things such that you would hear from other vaccines right so you get swelling or redness around the arm. You may feel unwell with a fever or rash and body aches, but those tend to go away after a number of days or a couple of weeks, and they don’t leave long term complications. Any side effects that are more serious are extremely rare. So an example would be an allergic reaction which, I think, is one in a million likelihood of happening for the MMR vaccine. So extremely rare, side effects that could be severe. So it is considered a safe vaccine, and quite different from the COVID vaccine. I think a lot of the concerns of the COVID vaccine was the fact that it’s a relatively new vaccine now that vaccine is also considered a safe vaccine, but the MMR vaccine has definitely been implemented for much longer.”

If you don’t have the MMR vaccine or are unsure you can contact your health care provider to find out. The Health Unit is also offering the vaccines so if you need one reach out or watch their Facebook page for walk-in clinics.