Measles in SA : Affected provinces ramp up vaccine roll-out

    As the number of measles cases continues to rise, a national vaccine drive targeting the disease has started earlier in the five provinces battling the outbreak. The health ministry had initially planned to roll out the national vaccine campaign next month.

    National Health Department spokesperson Foster Mohale said the focus is on children between six months and 15 years.  

    The campaign targets some schools.  “Health districts in consultation with education district offices manage the school visits,” he said.

    The outbreak is a consequence of the slowdown in the country’s immunisation programme as a result of Covid-19.

    Measles continues to spread

    On 12 January, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases(NICD) recorded 357 laboratory-confirmed cases from five provinces with declared outbreaks. Limpopo has 140, Mpumalanga has 75, and the Northwest has 114. Gauteng reported 16 patients, and the Free State 12.

    The NICD defines a measles outbreak as three or more confirmed laboratory measles cases reported within 30 days of the onset of disease in a district.

    Mohale said that they expect a rise in cases as people have returned home from holidays and schools and pre-schools have reopened.

    “Provinces working with education officials to encourage parents to vaccinate their children,” said Mohale. 

    A virus in the paramyxovirus family causes measles. It typically passes through direct contact and the air. The virus infects the respiratory tract and then spreads throughout the body.

    Mohale said a vaccine catch-up campaign was run late in 2020 and early 2021 following the lifting of the Covid-19 hard lockdown. “This was primarily an awareness campaign targeting parents/caregivers and healthcare workers. During 2021/22, routine immunisation rates returned to pre-pandemic levels.”

    The importance of the measles vaccine

    Dr Nkateko Msimeki, a senior manager at Medical Advisory at AfroCentric, reiterates that vaccines are the only protection against the virus. She said parents shouldn’t be afraid of vaccinating their children.

    “If you get measles, you will develop antibodies, which is natural immunity against the disease and generally, it gives you life-long protection. The measles vaccine does the same thing, except that you do not get measles itself. But if you get it, the vaccine causes your body to produce antibodies and gives you that protection,” explained Msimeki.

    Msimeki said controlling the spread of the virus is challenging because it is so highly contagious. 

    “If you have not had measles yourself, are unvaccinated, and exposed to somebody who had it, in about 90% of cases, you will also get measles. One person with measles can spread it to about 17 people,” she said.

    Deadly for those over 15

    Msimeki warned people to stay away from anyone infected with measles. Those who have the disease should isolate themselves. But she said the difficulty is that it takes some time before symptoms appear.

    “Typically, if I get exposed to someone who has got measles, I will likely start showing symptoms about 10 to 14 days after that exposure. I am considered infectious from four days before I get the rash and then about four days after I have had the rash. But typically, people do not know that someone has got measles until they have the rash, are coughing, and have a fever,” said Msimeki. 

    Msimeki also warned that measles could be fatal for anyone older than 15 who is unvaccinated.

    According to the World Health Organisation, In 2021, there were an estimated 9 million cases and 128 000 deaths from measles worldwide. 

    “The paradox of the pandemic is that while vaccines against COVID-19 were developed in record time and deployed in the largest vaccination campaign in history, routine immunisation programmes were badly disrupted, and millions of kids missed out on life-saving vaccinations against deadly diseases like measles,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

    Measles vaccination coverage has steadily declined since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, a record high of nearly 40 million children missed a measles vaccine dose. “Getting immunization programmes back on track is absolutely critical. Behind every statistic in this report is a child at risk of a preventable disease.”- Health-e News.

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