Immunisation experts descend on Auckland to combat measles outbreak

The AM Show 05/09/2019

Health experts are gathering for an immunisation conference on Thursday to try to come up with a plan to tackle the measles outbreak.

Nearly 1000 people across the country have the disease, with the majority of cases in Auckland. 

Pharmac has sent an extra 10,000 doses of the MMR vaccine to the city.

"I think we'll see this outbreak under control," University of Auckland infectious disease specialist Emma Best told The AM Show on Thursday.

Immunisations work, and the MMR itself is a very effective vaccine.

The conference takes place annually, but this year comes amid speculation New Zealand could soon be stripped of its official measles-free status, meaning outbreaks can happen without the virus having to be brought in from overseas.

"We will lose our current elimination status if we don't get our coverage up over the next few months and start to reduce transmission in New Zealand," Otago University professor Michael Barker told Newshub.

"There's been a strong argument for several years that we need to fill this immunity gap, and we haven't done it. So now there's hopefully a lot more momentum around filling that immunity gap."

Measles is one of the most infectious viruses out there. Just being in the same room as someone with the disease is enough to catch it. 

"It's only highly infectious in those days just before you get the rash... but you're not aware you have measles in that time," said Dr Best. "You might just have the fever, and that's what makes people carry on with their usual business and head out."

There are numerous reasons why people might not be immunised - one of those is a fear of needles. Dr Best says work is being done to find new ways of delivering the MMR vaccine, and some of them will be discussed at this week's conference.

Patches are another option. A patch that can deliver vaccines and drugs via painless 'microneedles' in a matter of seconds was recently unveiled by researchers in the US.

"There's research around new techniques to give vaccines - whether it can be intranasal or patches on the skin... We already have things like the rotavirus vaccine, which is a few drops on the tongue," said Dr Best. "That's the kind of thing that gets discussed at these international conferences, but there isn't something other than the MMR vaccine now."

Both Barker and Dr Best say the measles epidemic was predictable.

"There certainly was evidence there was a gap in immunity," said Dr Best.

We could have done some catch-up schedule before.

Barker says parents have been given mixed messages about toddler vaccinations, and Plunket has received an influx of calls from confused parents. Babies generally aren't given the MMR vaccine because it doesn't stick. If they are breastfeeding, babies can also get some protection from antibodies transferred from their mother.

Barker says rules change depending on how intense the outbreak is in each area.

"Normally is for 15 months. Now the recommendation is moving towards 12 months in most places to provide more protection - and it may go as young as six months." 

For older kids, Dr Best says it's best to keep them away from school if they haven't been vaccinated as measles, contrary to popular belief, is a "very dangerous illness".

"Some people recover completely. Young children get really unwell - sometimes very unwell, to the point of having brain inflammation, severe pneumonia... that means they have developmental problems." 

No one has died of measles in New Zealand since the 1990s, but experts have said it's inevitable if the current outbreak isn't stopped. US data suggests around one or two people die for every 1000 infections.

"I think it's clear that some of the cases that we've already had through our intensive care units would have died 20 or 30 years ago without the intensive treatment that we've been able to provide," Starship Hospital clinical director Mike Shepherd told Newshub on Wednesday.

The AM Show / Newshub reporters Miriam Harris & Dan Satherley