New Zealand has won international praise for successfully eliminating endemic measles and rubella for the first time.
Ministry of Health’s Director of Public Health, Dr Caroline McElnay, says it means no measles or rubella cases have originated here for the past three years, but people who have caught the diseases overseas regularly bring them in on their arrival here.
‘We are very pleased to gain verification and congratulations from the World Health Organization that we have eliminated these two dangerous childhood diseases. I’d like to thank our hard-working health professionals and families and caregivers for this great result,’ she says.
‘However, we must remain vigilant and improve our vaccination rates because these diseases can easily spread among unimmunised people from imported cases. In New Zealand, people aged 12 to 32 years have lower vaccination rates than young children so are less likely to be protected against these diseases. That’s why teens and young adults have been most affected in the recent mumps outbreaks.’
Dr McElnay will announce the WHO verification at a Ministry-run Measles and Rubella Elimination Symposium in Wellington today, where experts from Australia and New Zealand will meet to discuss how to lift vaccination rates among teenagers and young adults.
The MMR vaccine protects against measles, mumps and rubella, all which can be serious in young adults. Before 2005, immunisation rates were not nationally recorded and parents might not have received reminders that their children were due for vaccination.
Everyone born from 1 January 1969 needs to have two doses of MMR vaccine to be fully protected. Those born before then were likely to have been exposed to the disease so should be immune, Dr McElnay says.
‘Diseases like measles and most recently mumps can spread quickly in schools and tertiary education facilities. Rubella immunity is particularly important for young women thinking about starting a family because the disease can cause abnormalities for the baby.’
‘Because measles is so contagious, 95 percent of people need to be fully vaccinated against the disease to prevent sustained outbreaks. About 90 percent of young children have received both doses of MMR by age five in New Zealand, but only about 80 percent of teenagers and young adults have had both doses, which leaves them at risk.
‘Catching up on MMR vaccination is easy and free, whatever your age. If you can’t find your records and aren’t sure whether you’re protected, it’s better to get vaccinated.’
WHO will officially announce New Zealand’s elimination of the potentially fatal childhood diseases at its Regional Committee for the Western Pacific’s annual meeting, which starts on Monday in Brisbane, Australia.
Friday’s symposium will be led by Dr Robert Hall, who heads the Technical Advisory Group on Immunization and Vaccine-Preventable Diseases for WHO’s Regional Committee for the Western Pacific.
Measles has been eliminated in the Americas, Australia, the United Kingdom and many other countries, but outbreaks occur from time to time. Elimination means endemic transmission of a disease has been interrupted for more than three years. Outbreaks lasting less than a year are not counted as endemic transmission.