Fear and Measles in North Carlton
Over the past few years, inner city Melbourne has been wracked by measles outbreaks, and there are fears that more outbreaks are likely.
The best protection against measles is immunisation, but after a number of recent measles outbreaks, concerns have been raised over vaccination rates in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. Image: “The needle” by Partha S. Sahana via Flickr (used under CC BY 2.0).
Measles is an incredibly contagious viral disease, and caused over 130,000 deaths worldwide in 2015, most of whom were young children. Though measles remains one of the leading killers of children, the measles vaccine has saved over 20 million lives since the year 2000.
Since the widespread adoption of the measles vaccine across Australia in the early 1990s, measles rates have dropped dramatically. But in recent years the number of people catching measles has been increasing. There was a total of 990 cases of measles from 2000 to 2011 in Australia, compared to 340 people in 2015 alone.
Outbreaks in Melbourne
In February last year, two students at Princes Hill Primary School in North Carlton were infected with measles. Neither had been vaccinated against measles. The school swiftly responded to this by preventing a total of 21 students who weren’t fully immunised (of a total of 461 students) from attending school for over a week. These cases were part of an outbreak where a total of 14 people were infected with measles in Brunswick and adjacent suburbs, which also struck Footscray West Primary School.
This outbreak paralleled others where three students at Essendon North Primary School caught measles in August 2014, and where three people were infected after an RMIT graduation ceremony in December 2014.
For the seven years that I attended Princes Hill Primary School in the early 2000s, not a single student was ever infected with measles. Going to high school in North Carlton, every student received a vaccine for Hepatitis B and every girl was given Gardasil in Year 7, and in Year 10 every student received a vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Parents conscientiously objecting to vaccinations was almost unheard of. However, in 2012, the number of objectors to vaccinations rose to six times higher than what it was in 1999.
When 95% of individuals in a population are immunised against a contagious disease, the entire population becomes protected by ‘herd immunity’. Herd Immunity is incredibly important for ensuring that people who can’t get vaccinated are protected, such as newborns, or those with conditions or diseases that affect their immune system. While the national immunisation rate for 5 year old children in 2016 was over 92%, there are a number of Melbourne suburbs that are well under 90% (that’s more than one in ten young children who haven’t been vaccinated!)
The Dangerous Reality of Measles
A claim often made by those who conscientiously object to getting or having their children get the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (which is given to children around their first birthday as part of the National Immunisation Program) is that measles is no big deal. Everyone used to get the measles when they were a kid, and they’d get over it in a week. Or so they’d say.
The reality is that measles can kill, both directly and indirectly. Measles infections dramatically weaken the immune system, putting children at great risk of catching other diseases like pneumonia. In rare cases, measles can also cause a swelling of the brain (called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis) that often leads to death. Measles can also lead to painful ear infections that can cause permanent hearing loss.
Keeping Society Safe
Widespread vaccination against measles has been incredibly effective against combating the disease. There is overwhelming scientific evidence for vaccines being safe. The recent trend of measles outbreaks is a worrying one.
Refusal to vaccinate a child not only puts that child’s health at risk, but that of their entire community as well. Some of society’s most vulnerable rely on herd immunity to protect themselves from potentially deadly diseases, and so being vaccinated should be seen as a civic duty.
Getting vaccination rates over 95% will require honest, evidence-based communication from doctors, clinicians, educators, and journalists that addresses the concerns of both parents and the public as a whole.
If you’re interested in knowing more about measles and vaccinations in Australia, check out some of these links: