Alberta urged to make ‘full court push’ against measles as Europe battles outbreaks

As cases of measles surge in Europe, there are calls for public health officials in Alberta to take stronger steps to prevent outbreaks.

The World Health Organization recently warned of a dramatic rise in cases in Europe and a travel-related case was reported in Montreal last week.

Measles, a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus, can hang in the air for up to two hours after an infected person leaves a room. In severe cases, it can lead to serious complications resulting in the loss of hearing or sight, intellectual disabilities and even death.

But immunization rates in the province are dropping.

While data for 2023 is not yet available, provincial statistics show that in 2022, 74 per cent of Alberta kids were fully vaccinated against measles, with two doses, by the age of seven. In 2018, it was 78 per cent.

There are some pockets of the province where rates are far lower.  

In the south zone, for example, the immunization rate dropped to 71.7 per cent in 2022. Some local areas within the zone were as low as 45 per cent.

The overall rate in the north zone was 67.1 per cent.

“In order to protect people — to have a herd-based immunity in the community — we actually need vaccine rates for people that are fully immunized above 90 per cent to stop the spread through a community,” said Craig Jenne, a professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

“If we were to introduce a virus into these regions, we could expect very rapid spread and, unfortunately, large numbers of cases.”

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‘Unmute’ public health

According to Dr. James Talbot, a former chief medical officer of health for Alberta, with case counts spiking in Europe, it’s likely the province will see more travel-related cases.

And he’s calling on public health officials to act now to prevent outbreaks here.

“We need to get those [immunization] rates up and we need a full court push,” he said.

What makes measles so difficult to control, he said, is that a person can be infectious four days before the rash appears. And nine out of 10 unimmunized people who come in contact with the virus will go on to develop measles.

Dr. James Talbot is an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta’s school of public health and a former chief medical officer of health for Alberta. (CBC)

“We need the chief medical officer of health and public health doing campaigns to make people aware that the vaccine is available, that it’s effective, that it’s safe and that particularly their kids need to have that vaccine to prevent serious outcomes,” said Talbot, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta’s school of public health.

Most kids will recover from measles. But up to three in 1,000 will die from the infection, he said.

“If we do that now before measles get out of control in the province, we’ll be saving lives. If we wait until there actually is an outbreak, it’ll be too late and we will lose lives.”

Alberta’s current chief medical officer of health, Dr. Mark Joffe, has not spoken publicly for months.

“We need to unmute public health in this province and do an immunization campaign, unlike the one with flu, that mentions which immunization you should get and what the benefits are,” said Talbot.

“There are many ways to make sure we get those rates up. But not talking about it isn’t one of them.”

Alberta reported one case of measles last year, in an infant who had picked up the virus while travelling abroad. There were no cases in 2022. 

Case counts in the province are usually very low, ranging from one to a high of 44 cases in the preceding decade, Alberta data shows.

“Measles is spread easily through the air and is the most communicable of all known infectious diseases,” a spokesperson for Alberta Health said in an email when contacted by CBC News.

The department did not respond to CBC’s request for an interview with Joffe.

When asked what is being done to protect against oubreaks here, a spokesperson said steps by Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services (AHS) include “enhanced web content and the expansion of the school immunization program to catch-up students that were delayed for immunizations throughout COVID-19 — when many students were learning at home.”

In addition to vaccines it offers as part of its school immunization program, AHS reviews childhood immunization records in grades 1, 6 and 9 and offers catch-up shots to those students who are not up-to-date.

But there are no plans to provide measles-specific immunization clinics to address low rates.

“AHS has over 150 public health clinics in Alberta — immunization appointments are widely available, special immunization clinics are not currently needed,” the email said.

Jenne agrees now is the time to act, adding measles vaccination clinics could help in parts of the province where parents don’t have easy access to appointments.

“Right now, without measles necessarily being in the province, this is our opportunity to ensure we offer vaccines, we remind parents, we make this convenient,” he said.

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