Measles – a modern epidemic

Measles is one of the world's most contagious diseases and it's entirely preventable. So why are cases on the rise in our communities?

Measles – a modern epidemic

Measles is one of the world’s most serious contagious diseases yet it is easily preventable through vaccination. So why are we still seeing so many cases in New Zealand and the Pacific?

Symptoms of measles include a fever, sore throat, runny nose, inflamed red eyes, a rash, and headaches. Around one in ten people end up in hospital once they have contracted measles. The disease can cause serious complications including encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain), seizures and pneumonia. Children under the age of five and adults over 20 are most at risk of complications, as are pregnant women. Measles is easily prevented through vaccination.

In 1835, whalers brought measles to the South Island. The disease spread quickly among the Ngāi Tahu people and an estimated 4,000 Māori died.
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Creator: Science Museum Photo Studio, London. Copyright: Health Education Authority.

A highly contagious disease

Measles has a very long incubation period which supercharges its transmissibility. People with measles may not show any symptoms for up to two weeks after catching it. This makes the virus very infectious since people can spread it before they even know they have it. Measles is transmitted through tiny aerosol droplets which can hang in the air for hours and can also survive on surfaces. One person with measles can infect up to 18 people.

Measles was first described over 1000 years ago by a Persian doctor. It is believed to have been around for 4000 years and evolved from a disease found in cattle. Before the invention of a vaccine in the 1960s, everyone was likely to encounter measles and the virus was responsible for many deaths.

The first measles vaccine became available in 1963 but was not widely available in New Zealand until 1969.

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Part of the kiwi healthcare team dispatched to Samoa to help during the measles outbreak in 2019. Photo courtesy of Leilani Jackson.

Modern measles epidemic in New Zealand and Samoa

In 2019, New Zealand experienced its biggest measles outbreak in 30 years due to patchy national immunity, especially among young people in Māori and Pasifika communities.
Low immunisation rates combined with overcrowded housing made this group of people particularly vulnerable.

Over 1500 cases of measles were reported in 2019, most of which were in Auckland. A third of these cases ended up in hospital. Of children infected, 50 percent of under four-year-olds were admitted to hospital, showing the particular danger of measles to very young children and the susceptibility of people not protected by vaccination.

After New Zealand’s outbreak, measles made its way to Samoa where there were nearly 6,000 cases, 83 deaths and nearly 2000 hospitalisations. Of these deaths, 72 were in children under the age of five. While there are some GPs in Samoa, most people seek health care at the local hospital when they need it. Samoa became a tragic example of how an infectious disease can spread quickly through a largely unvaccinated community.

New Zealand lends a hand

In a bid to help Samoa’s overwhelmed hospital system, medical staff from New Zealand volunteered to assist, sending intensive care specialists and vaccination teams. Counties Manukau nurse Leilani Jackson, left her family at home in Auckland to return to Samoa and coordinate a mass vaccination drive. You can read her story here.