PARENTS

Measles Outbreak: How To Make Sure Your Child Is Safe

05/04/2015 03:50 EDT | Updated 05/04/2015 03:59 EDT
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Recent measles outbreaks in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia have sounded alarm bells for parents. Is my child safe? What should I be doing? What do I need to know?

Let me give you the top line so you are up to speed.

What exactly is measles?

Measles is the leading cause of vaccine-preventable deaths in children worldwide. It is a virus that mainly causes an infection of the respiratory system. It is spread through body fluids, droplets of saliva moved by coughing and sneezing. (And those droplets can linger in indoor air for two hours!)

It is highly infectious with 90 per cent of those exposed contracting the virus. Forty per cent of people with measles will require hospitalization. One in 3,000 die, while others suffer life-long brain disabilities due to encephalitis, vision problems due to eye scarring and hearing problems or deafness as the virus attacks the inner and middle ear.

Why is there an outbreak now?

Measles is thought to be a well-controlled disease in Canada. That is due to our immunization practices. On average, 90 per cent of Canadians are vaccinated. However, there are pockets of populations - some religious communities, for example - that have a vaccination rate as low as 50 per cent.

Other reasons for low vaccination rates are fear, complacency, and misunderstanding. The long debate about the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine and its potential link to autism has been scientifically disproven, but the fear and skepticism remain.

The recent outbreak in Albert and BC seems to be traced back to unvaccinated travellers who brought the virus back from the Netherlands and the Philippines to their faith-based communities. The spread of the virus has now moved beyond their churches to the greater community.

What are the signs I should look for?

As many as 21 days after exposure to the virus, your child will start developing symptoms. Initially it will appear as though they are suffering from a cold - low energy, no appetite, coughing, sneezing, high fever. Then, three to seven days after the onset of symptoms, the tell-tale rash will appear, starting as blotches on the face and then moving down the limbs. The eyes are often red and swollen and little white dots may appear in the mouth and throat.

Part of the difficulty in containing the spread of measles is that you are infectious before you develop symptoms. You don't know you are infecting others.

When should I seek medical help?

Err on the side of caution. While we don't want to flood the emergency room with cases of the common cold, parents do seem to have a good radar for when their child is just not himself or herself, when they sense something is amiss. Trust yourself and your own judgment. If your child has any of the signs beyond the runny nose and sneezing, seek help. Because it is so infectious, let the emergency room or clinic attendant know you suspect measles so they can take precautions to reduce further spread of the disease.

How do I know if my child is inoculated?

Check the immunization cards for everyone in your family. If you were born before 1970 you are considered immune. If you can't find the family records, ask your family doctor to retrieve them.

The recommended immunization schedule for the combined MMR shot is aged 12 months to 15 months for the first inoculation and then a booster at five to six years.

If you are travelling with a child, they may inoculate differently to ensure immunity. Check with your doctor. You can also download apps such as ImmunizeCA, which tracks both your immunization records and outbreaks in your vicinity.

Should I let my child go to daycare/school/public spaces?

If your children are healthy, there is no reason to restrict their activities in public places. If your child has any signs of a cold, please isolate him or her and watch for changes carefully.

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