Albertans encouraged to get vaccinated for measles

Health experts in Alberta are urging parents to make sure their children are fully vaccinated for measles and that their booster shots are up to date as the contagious virus begins to spread in communities across Canada.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has reported 17 domestic measles cases so far this year across Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. That’s an increase from the 12 cases reported in all of 2023.

There have been no confirmed cases in Alberta since November, but Dr. Sam Wong, president of the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) section of Pediatrics, says it’s only a matter of time.

He points to a surge of cases in Europe and warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) where even countries that have achieved measles elimination status are at risk of outbreaks.

“Measles is highly contagious and we’re going to see more spread of it, especially with the lower vaccination rates that we’ve seen in childhood vaccinations in the last few years,” said Wong.

“Part of the problem with measles is the first few days are just like a typical cold, they may have a fever, they may have a cough, they may have a runny nose, but it’s extremely contagious.

“It can stay around in a room for up to two hours, putting others who are unvaccinated at risk.”

According to the latest figures from Alberta Health, the uptake of measles vaccines for kids getting their first dose by age two was 82 per cent, but that rate declines significantly between urban and rural areas.

In the south zone of the province, it sits at just 46 per cent, and 65 per cent in northeast Alberta, which is well below vaccination levels recommended in the mid-90s to slow spread in the community.

The concern of community transmission has some Calgary parents like Sydney Wuttunee taking extra precautions for her two young children.

On Thursday, she got both of them vaccinated for measles and made sure to check that she had a booster for herself.

“We’re travelling to the U.S. in 10 days, so we wanted to make sure everyone in our family had the most up-to-date measles vaccine because of how much we’ve heard about the spread,” she said.

“Vaccines are really important for all of us, but especially vulnerable populations and kids, they have their whole life ahead of them and we’ve eradicated these diseases through vaccines so it’s really shocking that it’s even a conversation we’re having anymore.”

Health Canada recommends that adults born before 1970 are generally presumed to have acquired immunity due to infection with measles when they were younger.

This is due to high levels of measles circulation before 1970. However, vaccination for measles is still recommended for some population groups, even if born before 1970.

Those born after 1970 to 1995 only got one dose and second doses were not introduced until 1996, so that population is encouraged to get a booster shot.  

Growing calls for measles vaccines to be available at pharmacies

Currently in Alberta, the measles vaccine has to be booked over the phone via 811 instead of online or through a walk-in appointment at a pharmacy that’s offered in other provinces like Ontario.

A CTV Calgary employee attempted to book their vaccine Thursday through 811, waited on hold for about two and a half hours.

The person on the 811 call said there has been long waits daily of up to 100 people in line with the vast majority looking to book an immunization appointment.

Daniel Burton, the co-founder of Apothecare Pharmacy in southeast Calgary, is calling on the province to make measles vaccines more accessible to Albertans and offer publicly-funded vaccines at pharmacy locations.

“We definitely have a lot of people reaching out right now, particularly in the older demographic, to get the MMR measles vaccine because they’re concerned about their health and trying to be preventative, ” he said.

“Putting the measles vaccine in pharmacies is going to reduce some of the barriers, we’re more accessible than the public health clinics you have to make an appointment in all cases for, so there’s a lot more opportunity more that could be to come in and get it done here.”

“As I understand, we had one case of measles in November, and it was an imported case so someone was infected somewhere else and brought it into the province.

“We’re very pleased to see that we haven’t had some of the issues that we’re heard about it other provinces.”

CTV News posed the question to Premier Danielle Smith as to whether or not the province would announce a directive to make the measles vaccine available in pharmacies, but she did not make any commitment to doing so.

“We want to make sure that people understand that this is available and we hope that they look at the risk of consequences for measles which can be very, very high,” Smith said.

“So we’re glad to see the vaccine rates are still high and we haven’t had a problem, but we’re in active discussion with our health minister about how we can make sure to get the word out so people know how to be able to get the vaccination for their kids.”

Alberta Health also provided the following statement to CTV News regarding measles vaccines:

“Provincially funded measles containing vaccine is not available through community pharmacies in any jurisdictions across Canada, including Alberta,” read the statement.

“Measles containing vaccine is available through Alberta Health Services (AHS) public health or through private travel clinics. Immunization appointments for childhood or adult vaccines can be made by calling 811, by calling your nearest AHS public health or community centre, or by accessing a private travel clinic.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert at the University of Toronto, says awareness of the vaccination is extremely important, but actually getting the shot is what needs to be done to prevent the spread.

He calls measles “the most highly transmissible virus on the planet.”

“It doesn’t take much, even a quick exposure, this is the kind of virus that can have even distant transmission in an indoor setting,” he said.

“Two cases in Ontario and one in Quebec have no link to travel and no known contact with an infected case, that’s very troubling because it means there is some degree of community transmission. We should not be in a position like this. We need to get our vaccine rates higher.”

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