Thousands of unimmunised children could be sent home from school in a measles outbreak, says the Health Ministry, which has invoked special powers to deal with a looming epidemic.
Chief child health adviser Pat Tuohy said there was growing concern that an epidemic was brewing, with the number of measles cases so far this year already seven times the total number of cases last year.
Health Ministry figures suggest up to 23 per cent of schoolchildren (174,000) have no immunity to measles.
Nationally, there have been 145 confirmed or probable cases reported since May 30, including 14 people taken to hospital. Canterbury has been hardest hit, with more than 100 cases, but the virus is spreading in Auckland, with 18 confirmed cases, and isolated cases in other regions.
The ministry has invoked its powers under infectious and notifiable disease legislation for the first time to order the exclusion of infected students and teachers from school for seven days. Unimmunised children exposed to infected people are excluded from school and sporting events for two weeks.
The ministry has asked doctors to contact all children under 13 who have not yet had the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Adults born after 1969 may be eligible for a free MMR booster.
Immunisation Advisory Centre director Nikki Turner said about one in four Kiwi children under five could be at risk of catching measles.
Some were from low-income and transient families with less access to health services, but a "persistent myth" linking the vaccine with autism had frightened off some middle-class parents, Dr Turner said.
"This has been debunked by scientists but, once a myth is out there, it's hard to eradicate. And because we haven't seen a serious outbreak for several years, there's some complacency about measles."
During the last major New Zealand epidemic in 1991, 7000 people became ill and seven children died.
Principals' Federation president Ernie Buutveld said an epidemic would have"a major impact on working parents".
"But this is the result of the complacency of a generation of parents. It's not just measles, but whooping cough and diphtheria are waiting in the wings."
SPOT THE SYMPTOMS
Measles is a highly contagious
viral infection. It can lead to ear infections, pneumonia and
diarrhoea, and serious compli
cations such as swelling of
SPREAD by sneezing, coughing or touching contaminated surfaces.
SYMPTOMS: Fever, conjunctivitis, runny nose and small, irregular, bright-red spots with a small white speck on the inside of the mouth.
RISKS: One in 1000 cases gets encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), which kills 15 in 100 people and leaves 25 to 35 people in 100 with permanent brain damage. One in 1000 children dies, and one to four out of 100,000 get a brain-destroying disease several years after infection.
The MMR vaccine, given free at 15 months and four years of age, protects 90-95 per cent of people after both doses. Source: Health Ministry
- The Dominion Post
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