Measles cases are rising globally. Should Canadians worry? What to know about risks & vaccines

In 2022, more than 100,000 children died from measles around the world.

measles Sick guy covered in red spots on body struggle with measles or rash virus. Unhealthy man suffer from rubella or dermatitis. Healthcare and medicine. Infectious disease. Flat vector illustration.
In 2022, more than 100,000 children died from measles around the world. Should Canadians worry? (Getty)

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A new report from the World Health Organization has confirmed what doctors around the globe have suspected — measles cases are rising, and more people are dying.

The Nov. 17 report, with the Centers for Disease Control, said there was an 18 per cent increase in estimated measles cases and a 43 per cent increase in estimated measles deaths in 2022 compared with 2021.

Researchers said this is a result of millions of children missing measles vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic. "Global coverage with measles-containing vaccine (MCV) declined during the COVID-19 pandemic to the lowest levels since 2008, and measles surveillance was suboptimal," the report said.

Canadian infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch told Yahoo Canada he wasn't surprised by the report, adding it was clear there was "a breakdown of many public health programs throughout the course of the pandemic."

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 said.

In 2022, there were 136,200 deaths from measles. Nearly all of those deaths were children, and the majority under the age of five.

As horrible as that is, it's also horrible to know that this is 100 per cent preventable.Dr. Isaac Bogoch

Should Canadians be worried about these rising numbers? 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 the 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 diarrhea and dehydration

  • ear infections

  • severe breathing problems

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

Should Canadians be worried about rising cases globally?

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.

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.

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

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 health-care 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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