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Measles cases show up in Metro Vancouver

An unusual cluster of measles cases has arrived on the North Shore. - Contributed
An unusual cluster of measles cases has arrived on the North Shore.
— image credit: Contributed

Three Metro Vancouver residents have contracted measles and health officials are urging the public to ensure their immunizations are up to date to help prevent further spread of the virus.

The three cases to date are all on the North Shore or Bowen Island, but one of those patients went cross-border shopping in Bellingham last Saturday, potentially exposing people there to infection.

Vancouver Coastal Health officials are also tracing the three patients' contacts on this side of the border to alert others who are at risk, but haven't identified specific places in the Lower Mainland where the public was exposed.

"We're not worried yet about a general community-level transmission," said medical health officer Dr. Réka Gustasfon.

She called the cases unusual in that they're the first locally acquired measles cases here since a 2010 outbreak.

Advice and vaccinations are being offered to anyone who may have been in contact with those infected, but Gustafson said anyone who is unsure about their measles immunization can get the MMR vaccine for free from doctors and clinics.

Whatcom County's Health Department issued its own alert Thursday, warning that someone ill with measles could have transmitted the virus to other shoppers on June 22 at the Bellingham Costco between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and also at Bellis Fair Mall between noon and 4 p.m.

Gustafson confirmed that exposure came from one of the Metro patients who visited Bellingham.

"We informed individuals rather than the general public," she said of exposures in B.C. "We feel we've been able to identify the highest risk contacts."

Metro Vancouver rarely sees more than a single case of measles at a time, Gustafson said, because of the relatively high population immunity here.

But she noted there are neighbourhoods across the region where vaccination levels are lower and there's a much higher risk of broader transmission.

Measles are highly contagious starting one to two days before symptoms show up and continuing until four days after the classic measles rash begins.

The droplets from coughs and sneezes can remain airborne in a room for one to two hours after the infectious person has left, according to Whatcom officials.

It can take seven to 21 days for someone to come down with measles after they've been exposed.

"This means that patrons of Costco or Bellis Fair Mall could start to have symptoms between June 29 and July 13," said the Whatcom alert.

There haven't been any confirmed cases in Washington State, but an outbreak is ongoing in New York State.

Two doses of vaccine are required for lifelong measles immunity, and Gustafson said many people, particularly those 43 or younger, have had only one dose.

The disease is most serious for infants, who die at a rate of one for every 3,000 infections in developed countries. It's much worse in the third world, which accounts for most of the 150,000 annual measles deaths worldwide.

The risk of fatalities as well as significant complications like pneumonia and brain inflammation is why health leaders encourage vaccination.

"If you have large outbreaks – thousands and thousands of cases – there will be deaths from measles," Gustafson said.

Anyone who develops measles symptoms – starting with a fever, runny nose, cough and red, watery eyes – is urged to stay home and not expose others.

The rash develops after several days, first on the face and then spreading down to most of the body. It can last a week or more.

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