Measles is back on the radar after an Auckland student tested positive for measles last week, which has led to the closure of a school.
A student at Albany Senior High School was on campus on April 27 and 28 while infectious with the disease. Students and staff have been warned to “stay away”.
The positive case is a concern as experts say New Zealand is highly vulnerable to a new measles outbreak because of falling vaccination rates.
What is measles?
Measles is a highly infectious virus that can lead to serious health complications, passed from person to person by breathing, sneezing or coughing.
The most common first signs are cold and flu symptoms, followed by a blotchy rash that starts 3-7 days after the first symptoms. The rash begins on the face before spreading to the head and rest of the body, lasting for up to a week.
Symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose, sore and watery red or pink eyes and small white spots inside the mouth.
The virus spreads very quickly. Measles is about eight times more contagious than Covid-19 according to the Ministry of Health.
Who is most at risk?
If you are not immunised or haven’t had measles before, and you’ve been in the same room as someone with measles, you are very likely to catch it.
Those at highest risk of measles are babies, children under 5, pregnant women, and those with chronic illness or weakened immune systems.
Measles has a more than 50 per cent death rate for New Zealand children with low immunity, such as those receiving cancer treatment.
If unvaccinated pregnant people get infected with measles it can increase the risk of miscarriage and premature labour.
During the 2019 measles outbreak, more than 30 per cent of those infected with measles were admitted to hospitals in New Zealand.
How to prevent catching measles
Two doses of the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine at the age of 12 months or older is the best way to prevent catching measles.
Vaccination against measles is free for people born after January 1 1969. Those born before that date or who have had measles before are considered immune to measles, but can still get vaccinated.
You can go to your family medical clinic or GP for vaccinations. They have your medical records and can check what vaccinations you have had. Either a doctor or a nurse can give the vaccination.
Many pharmacies also can give the MMR vaccine and usually, no appointment is necessary.
Some pharmacies have longer opening hours than family medical clinics and a pharmacist can check your vaccination record.
Auckland school case
Public health staff are investigating the source of the infection and said the student had not been overseas recently, which meant they were infected by someone with measles within New Zealand.
Albany Senior High School, on Auckland’s North Shore, teaches students from Year 11 to 13 and had a roll in 2022 of close to 800.
The source of the student’s infection is likely to be a person known to them who has recently travelled abroad.
“Measles is a highly infectious illness and can make people very unwell. It spreads very easily amongst people who have not had measles before, or who have not been immunised,” National Public Health Service interim clinical ead Dr William Rainger said.
“Parents can check on their children’s immunity by looking in the blue Well Child Tamariki Ora or Plunket Book Child Health or Plunket book or asking their medical centre about vaccination.”
Rainger said authorities will “continue to see measles cases coming into Aotearoa New Zealand”, given the high rates of infection in other pockets of the world.
MMR vaccine by the numbers
• The MMR vaccine is 97-99 per cent effective.
• Put 500 teenagers on an island. At a 95 per cent vaccination rate, it’s expected that 475 would be vaccinated and 25 unvaccinated.
• If someone with measles visited the island and there was a dance party, it would be expected that 14 of the 475 vaccinated and 23 of the 25 unvaccinated to get sick.
• That means 38 per cent of the teens who caught measles would have been fully vaccinated - but that group was far bigger to start with.