The World Health Organization is warning about soaring rates of measles in Europe – a situation they’re calling a tragedy. And while Canada has had nowhere near the number of cases, the fact that infections are on the rise is worrying, says one infectious diseases expert.
Given that a highly effective measles vaccine has been around for more than 40 years, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, says there should be no measles anywhere in the world.
“This is a very easy infection to prevent, the vaccine is widely available, and it’s extremely effective. So there shouldn’t be any cases,” he told CTV’s Your Morning Tuesday.
Bogoch calls it a tragedy that more than 21,000 cases of measles were diagnosed in Europe last year. That’s a four-fold increase from the year before, when only 5,273 cases were confirmed – a record low for the region.
While most who have been infected with measles have survived, 35 people died last year. Most were children and all could have been prevented.
Canada has seen much fewer measles cases – only 45 cases in 2017. But that too was a four-fold increase from the 11 cases confirmed in 2016.
Bogoch says it’s unfortunate that rates are soaring but there are several reasons why.
“One is certainly immigration. Some of the people who are immigrating to these countries haven’t been vaccinated in childhood,” he said.
“But this also coupled with parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.”
In Italy, for example, a loud anti-vaccination movement has recently gained traction, with The Associated Press reporting that the movement is being bolstered by populist, anti-establishment politicians who have jumped on the vaccine-skepticism bandwagon.
Measles is one the most contagious infections in the world, and Bogoch says it doesn’t take much for it to spread when it finds clusters of unvaccinated people.
“When you have a population of people who are not immune to a very contagious infection, when the infection hits and it’s easily transmittable, it can spread like wildfire,” he said.
Romania was the worst affected country in Europe last year, with 5,562 cases. That country has a high number of impoverished Roma who can’t access health care. Italy was second, with 5,006 cases last year, despite the fact that health care there is free.
Despite 20 years of the medical community trying to spread the word that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine is safe, a lot of misinformation remains, Bogoch says.
“There is still a perception that there might be some bad side effects from the vaccine. But the side effects of measles are really, really bad,” he said.
“Many people will be fine, but there is the potential for swelling of the brain, for blindness or even death.”
Bogoch says he would not be surprised to see more measles outbreaks in Canada.
“We’re seeing more measles outbreaks, we’re seeing mumps outbreaks, and these are increasingly common in this era than even five or 10 years ago,” he said.