A child in Calgary was just diagnosed with measles. Should Canadians worry about the 'serious health concern'?

Alberta officials are concerned about the spread of this "highly infectious" disease.

A case of measles was confirmed in Calgary, and the city's airport is one of the exposure sites. (Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images; Canva)
A case of measles was confirmed in Calgary, and the city's airport is one of the exposure sites. (Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images; Canva)

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Alberta Health Services (AHS) has confirmed a case of measles this week in Calgary — the province's first in three years.

In an email to Yahoo Canada, the public health agency said a child was diagnosed with a "travel-acquired case of measles." This case is "concerning" to health officials, a spokesperson said. "Measles is a highly infectious airborne disease," adding it's "extremely contagious."

AHS said "the potential spread of measles is a serious health concern." Only one case has been confirmed to date and there is no evidence yet of an outbreak (two or more epidemiologically or virologically linked cases).

But, officials are warning the child was contagious when in a public space, a flight and the Calgary airport. According to an advisory, the exposure includes a 1.5-hour flight from Vancouver on Nov. 23 and a three-hour window at the Calgary airport. The child also visited the Alberta Children's Hospital emergency department waiting room on Nov. 24 and Nov. 27, adding two more exposure periods.

"Anyone who attended these locations at these times are strongly encouraged to review their immunization records and call HealthLink 811 for advice," the advisory read. Emphasis was placed on people who were at these locations and who:

  • Received fewer than 2 doses of measles-containing vaccine

  • Are pregnant, under one year of age, or have a weakened immune system

  • Was born after 1970 and has less than 2 documented doses

An AHS spokesperson told Yahoo Canada this is Alberta's first case of measles since 2020, when a travel-related case was confirmed.

This news comes after a Nov. 17 report from the World Health Organization said measles cases are rising globally, and so are death rates. Researchers have said this is a result of millions of children missing measles vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canadian infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, described the virus as the "canary in the coal mine" of public health. Outbreaks are "visible, and they're explosive. And obviously, they can be devastating," he told Yahoo Canada.

Should Canadians be worried about this Calgary case? Here's everything you need to know about measles and prevention.

What is measles?

Measles virus particle, computer illustration. This virus, from the Morbillivirus group of viruses, consists of an RNA (ribonucleic acid) core surrounded by an envelope studded with surface proteins haemagglutinin-neuraminidase and fusion protein, which are used to attach to and penetrate a host cell. Measles is a highly infectious itchy rash with a fever. It mainly affects children, but one attack usually gives life-long immunity.
Measles is a highly infectious itchy rash, often with a fever. (Getty)

According to WHO, measles is a "highly contagious disease" caused by a virus of the same name.

It "spreads easily when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes," the agency explained, adding the virus attacks the respiratory system first, before spreading through the body.

Symptoms can include:

  • a high fever

  • coughing

  • a runny nose

  • a rash all over the body

  • red and watery eyes

  • small white spots inside the cheeks

Complications from measles are what causes the majority of deaths, including:

  • blindness

  • encephalitis (an infection causing brain swelling or damage)

  • severe diarrhoea and dehydration

  • ear infections

  • severe breathing problems

These complications are most likely to occur in children under five years old and adults over 30, WHO said.

Bogoch added there's a misconception, "some people think measles is no big deal... It's important to note that it's associated with significant morbidity. You can get very, very sick from measles."

How common is measles in Canada?

Despite the global surge, Canada has reported very few cases of measles, thanks to the nation's high vaccination coverage.

Bogoch noted the few cases seen in Canada are predominantly imported, often originating from regions with lower vaccine rates. However, the issue could be that some Canadian children missed out on routine vaccination during the pandemic.

Current recommendation for routine measles vaccines is two doses, the first administered at 12 to 15 months of age and the second dose at 18 months of age or after, but before school.

"Could we see the propagation of cases in Canada after we'd have an important case, if we do see lapses of vaccination?" Bogoch questioned, answering it wouldn't be surprising. "There's so little wiggle room with with measles."

Cases are rising cases globally. Should Canadians be worried?

A child about to be given the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccination into their arm by a surgery nurse with a hypodermic syringe, England, UK.
Two doses of a measles vaccine provides nearly 100 per cent protection from the virus. (Getty)

Bogoch advocated awareness rather than undue concern.

The vaccine is safe, effective, and does a remarkable job in preventing infection.Dr. Isaac Bogoch

While Canada has few measles cases, individuals who choose not to be vaccinated might face risks, especially when travelling to areas with lower vaccine coverage. It's crucial for Canadians to stay informed about their vaccination status and ensure that routine vaccinations are up to date.

Bogoch said some individuals, despite being pro-vaccine, might not be up to date due to receiving only one dose, especially those born before the 1990s. He encouraged those in doubt to consult healthcare providers, including physicians, nurse practitioners, or pharmacists.

"One dose provides pretty good protection against measles, but two doses is much better," he claimed.

While Canadians may not face an immediate threat from the global rise in measles cases, awareness and proactive vaccination are essential.

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