22 Feb 2024

Threat of measles outbreak continues to loom

10:19 am on 22 February 2024
Measles viruses. 3D illustration showing structure of measles virus with surface glycoprotein spikes heamagglutinin-neuraminidase and fusion protein.

Photo: 123RF

Despite repeated calls for action, public health experts say New Zealand remains at risk.

Health authorities and experts have been warning for months of the risks the country faces with falling immunisation rates and more people arriving from overseas.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker told Morning Report the measles vaccine was very effective but because the disease was so infectious population coverage levels of 95 percent were needed.

Professor Michael Baker

Photo: Supplied / Department of Public Health

Vaccination rates had been falling since 2017 and the decline had ramped up during the Covid pandemic.

Current coverage was 83 percent overall, and just 69 percent for Māori, Baker said.

"So we've got these big groups, or cohorts, of children who've missed out. And so we're really just very vulnerable now to a national epidemic."

Baker said two things must be done immediately - a catch-up programme rolled out through early childhood centres and schools, and travellers should be told to check their immunity status.

The Government was investing in improving the vaccine programme but that would take awhile, he said.

Baker said checking vaccine status could be a challenge for older people, but they should talk to their GP.

He said during the 2019 outbreak a third of children who contracted the disease were hospitalised, and the spread to Samoa saw 83 children died there.

"We've had vaccines since 1969 and so many people have never seen measles, they don't know how devastating this illness was and why it's so important to vaccinate against it."

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