Public health experts are warning the spread of measles to the Pacific Islands is “inevitable” as the most serious outbreak in 20 years grips New Zealand.
More than 700 cases of measles have been recorded in Auckland this year, with more than 400 of them in the more deprived suburbs of south Auckland.
New Zealand’s ministry of health is desperately trying to contain the outbreak to stop it spreading around the country and around the Pacific region.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has taken the unprecedented step of warning anyone unvaccinated to stay away from the country’s largest city, home to 1.7 million people.
“It’s a considerable risk that it spreads to the Pacific Islands now, there is particular concern for countries such as Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands which have lower vaccination rates,” said Dr Teuila Percival, an expert in Pacific Health who works at south Auckland’s largest hospital, Middlemore and also runs a Pacific health centre.
On Thursday, Auckland Regional Public Health Service said they had been notified that a passenger with measles had travelled to Auckland from Samoa on an Air New Zealand flight. The traveller was unaware they had measles at the time, and soon after arriving in Auckland went into isolation.
While the vaccination coverage rate for two-year-olds in New Zealand is at 91% – comparable to Australia – the coverage rate for those aged 16-29 is believed to be lower. Data on older groups is patchy.
Experts have long warned that Auckland, which is the largest city in the country, has the most international arrivals and suffers from over-population and crowding, particularly in poor areas, is the most likely site for an outbreak of the disease.
Associate health minister Julie Anne Genter said she was “very concerned” at the rising number of cases, particularly those of young Pacific Islanders from south Auckland. The Auckland District Health board said the current outbreak has mostly affected young people aged up to four and 15 to 29.
One of the largest schools in south Auckland, Manurewa High, sent 300 children home on Wednesday after 13 cases of measles were reported among its students.
“We’re very busy, we’re seeing cases everyday in the emergency department,” said Percival. “It’s creating a lot of work and what the public don’t realise is that this can be a very serious condition and you can end up in intensive care, and you could well die.”
Genter said the government would prioritise vaccinating people who weren’t engaged in the health system or with a GP, and nurses could be deployed to work in shifts on weekends and after-hours to try to immunise as many people as possible in places such as churches, shopping malls and schools.
The government warned anyone thinking of travelling to Auckland to update their vaccination two weeks before visiting, or else stay away.
New Zealand was praised by the World Health Organisation for eradicating measles only two years ago. Now that status is under threat, with experts saying if the current outbreak continues New Zealand could lose its WHO eradication status by March next year.
The department of health said the outbreak would be upgraded to an epidemic if it spread to another region of New Zealand.
Cases of childhood measles are surging to shocking levels around the world, led by 10 countries that account for three-quarters of the rise.
Amid warnings of “disastrous consequences” for children if the disease continues to spread unchecked, a worldwide survey by the UN children’s agency, Unicef, said 98 countries around the globe reported a rise in measles cases in 2018 compared with 2017.