Measles myths blamed for outbreaks

Measles could have been eradicated in New Zealand by now if it were not for anti-vaccine campaigners and conspiracy theorists, public health experts say.

As a new map emerges that shows the effects of anti-vaccine scares worldwide, the Immunisation Advisory Centre says low rates of vaccination in pockets of this country remain a concern.

This comes as two more cases of measles are diagnosed in Auckland, adding to about 30 cases nationwide since December.

Many of these were attributed to an outbreak originating in the Philippines, arriving in New Zealand via a hip-hop dance competition in Sydney.

The two latest cases are not thought to be linked.

In 1998, a study by British doctor Andrew Wakefield was published in international medical journal The Lancet, linking the triple MMR vaccine - for measles, mumps and rubella - with an increased risk of autism.

Thousands of parents boycotted the MMR jab before the research was eventually discredited. Wakefield's results could not be replicated, and he was struck off by the General Medical Council in 2010.

But an interactive map produced by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank shows the legacy of his errors continues, as some anti-vaccine campaigners argue that all vaccines are dangerous.

The map shows spikes in childhood diseases that experts attribute at least partly to the Wakefield effect and which they say could have been prevented.

In New Zealand, preventable outbreaks include 274 cases of whooping cough in Auckland in 2012, and 328 in the West Coast that same year. Also highlighted are hundreds of measles of cases nationwide since 2008.

"There's still the myth that there's a problem with this [measles] vaccine," Immunisation Advisory Centre director of research Helen Petousis-Harris said.

"It's taken many, many years to reassure people that this isn't the case. It's not only about protecting yourself but the rest of the population as well, and it is a disease we can eradicate if we get the rates up high enough."

New Zealand has its own anti-immunisation group, which was struck off the charities register for promoting a view that vaccination was "ineffective and dangerous".

Warnings About Vaccine Expectations, or WAVESnz - formerly the Immunisation Awareness Society - was unavailable to speak to The Dominion Post yesterday.

Wellington regional public health medical officer of health Margot McLean said officials still encountered parents who were worried about links to autism from vaccines.

"The concern still reverberates . . . it has set us back in terms of the goal of eradication." Immunisation rates in New Zealand have improved to 93 per cent of all children at age 2, which includes at least one dose of the measles vaccine. The government's target is 95 per cent.

In the early 90s, rates in some areas were as low as 50 per cent.

But the people most at risk during recent outbreaks were those whose parents may not have had them immunised during the height of the Wakefield scare, McLean said. "What we are worried about are older children who aren't on the immunisation register, or the young adults."

A 23-year-old Wellingtonian who caught measles as part of the hip-hop festival outbreak told yesterday how her parents' failure to vaccinate her left her needing two bouts of hospital treatment to pump fluids into her body. She was vomiting up her pain relief medication, could not eat and had an extremely high temperature.

The woman, who did not want to be named, said she was never vaccinated. Her boyfriend - whose vaccinations were all up to date - did not contract the disease.

She still believed vaccination was a personal choice but said she would advise people to seriously consider the measles vaccine.

"It's better to be safe than sorry."

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The Dominion Post