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Infectious disease expert warns measles 'a very real threat'

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Health officials in Ontario confirmed a young child has died of measles, marking the first death in the province from the contagious virus in over a decade. Now an epidemiologist is warning the disease presents a "very real threat" to public health if Canada doesn't maintain a high vaccination rate.

The child, who was under the age of five, was not immunized against the virus, according to a Public Health Ontario report.

"People have convinced themselves, to some degree, that measles is a theoretical risk… that it's not a threat," Dr. Christopher Labos, an epidemiologist and cardiologist, told CTV News Channel host Roger Petersen on Friday. "It is a threat because when you don't have high vaccination rates, you have measles outbreaks like we've been having."

There have been a growing number of measles outbreaks both in the United States and Europe, and health experts have been warning the public about the possibilities of outbreaks in Canada for months.

In February, an infectious disease expert warned that measles is the "most transmissible infection on the planet" and Ontario's top doctor issued a warning to public health units to prepare for an increase in "potential outbreaks" of the disease.

Labos is calling for public health officials to double down on a vaccination campaign focused on public awareness and "preventing death."

"When we talk about vaccination or public health, people tend to sort of frame it in terms of political issues or social issues or identity issues," he said. "They can think it's a very abstract thing… The reason we talk about this is because we don't want kids to die."

It's a sentiment that Dr. Isaac Bogoch, Toronto-based infectious disease specialist, relayed to CTV News Channel earlier in the year.

"(Measles) kills 140,000 people per year on the planet," Bogoch explained. "Most of them are kids, all of these are preventable."

2024 outpaces years prior for measles

Weekly reports from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) show that measles case counts are outpacing those of the past five years, including from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of the week of May 4, PHAC has tallied 75 reported cases of measles this year, with 41 presently active including 27 in Quebec, 13 in Ontario and a single active case in Alberta.

 

In the agency's database, a case is considered active for 42 days after the onset of a rash.

The 2024 totals mark a sharp rise from those in recent years, as new case reports dropped to single digits, and even zero, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and associated public health measures. Even just a third of the way into the year, 2024 has seen more cases reported than in all of 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023 combined.

At the same time of year in 2019, before the advent of the pandemic, only 48 cases of measles had been recorded nationwide, PHAC records show.

 

Of the cases reported so far this year, 43 involved patients described by PHAC as either unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated, with the remainder confirmed to have completed their vaccination schedule, or with unknown immunization status.

Some of those identified as unvaccinated or partially vaccinated by the PHAC reports were infants or young children who had not yet reached the recommended age for their second dose.

 

Canada's 'herd immunity' at risk

Labos warns that in order for Canada to achieve herd immunity, Canada needs to maintain a vaccination rate at about 95 per cent – and it's a target that the country has been falling behind on.

"We've been drifting down… and there are certain part pockets of the country where the vaccination rate is very low," he warned. "You're talking under 50 per cent."

Although the concept of herd immunity was thrown into the public consciousness because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Labos thinks many still don't understand what it entails.

"What herd immunity means is that if you can get enough people vaccinated, that will protect the small number of unvaccinated people," Labos said. "Like the very young children under six months of age who can't be vaccinated."

Public awareness is key

According to Labos, public health authorities need to make a targeted outreach effort to pockets of the country with low vaccination levels because, he warns, those are where measles outbreaks tend to start.

"We've seen that in Canada and we've seen that in the U.S.," he said. "So it really is about informing the public."

He also said keeping vaccination levels robust is something that Canada has been successful at achieving in the past – allowing the country to practically eliminate the virus as a cause of death, but measles "has not gone away" and requires constant vigilance to keep at bay.

"We were so good up until a certain point," Labos said. "But if we let things slip, measles is still out there… it is going to come back."

With files from CP24.com’s Codi Wilson 

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