The serious and sometimes deadly childhood diseases measles and rubella have been officially eliminated from New Zealand.
The declaration from the Ministry of Health means no new cases have originated here in the past three years, though travellers do still catch the diseases overseas regularly, and bring them back in.
But the status has won international praise from the World Health Organisation for New Zealand’s vaccination rates. New Zealand joins the Americas, Australia and the UK, which have all achieved the status for measles.
It did not mean there was room for complacency however, Ministry of Health director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay said.
“We must remain vigilant and improve our vaccination rates because these diseases can easily spread among unimmunised people from imported cases.
“In New Zealand, people aged 12 to 32 years have lower vaccination rates than young children so are less likely to be protected against these diseases. That’s why teens and young adults have been most affected in the recent mumps outbreaks,” she said.
Experts across Australia and New Zealand would be meeting at a symposium in Wellington on Friday, to discuss ways to raise vaccination rates further – particularly in that 12-32 age group.
Many children would have their second MMR vaccine by the time they left primary or intermediate school for measles, mumps and rubella, however until 2005 national immunisation rates were not recorded and parents may not have received reminders for the child’s vaccinations.
Everyone born from January 1, 1969, needs to have two doses of the MMR vaccine to be fully protected. Those born before then were likely to have been exposed to the disease so should be immune, McElnay said.
“Because measles is so contagious, 95 per cent of people need to be fully vaccinated against the disease to prevent sustained outbreaks.”
That was to obtain what health officials call “herd immunity”.
Recent outbreaks of mumps showed how quickly the diseases could spread through schools and universities. Rubella was particularly dangerous for pregnant women, as the disease could cause abnormalities for the baby.
Measles could be life-threatening and about 1 in 10 people with measles would need hospital treatment, according to the Ministry.
Measles had a more than 50 per cent death rate for New Zealand children with low immunity, such as those receiving cancer treatment.
About 90 per cent of young children have received both doses of MMR by age five in New Zealand, but only about 80 percent of teenagers and young adults have had both doses, which leaves them at risk.
McElnay said it was free, at whatever age, to catch up on MMR vaccines. If people weren’t aware of their records or weren’t sure whether they were fully immunised, it was better to get vaccinated.
The World Health Organisation would officially announce New Zealand’s elimination of the potentially fatal childhood diseases at its Regional Committee for the Western Pacific’s annual meeting, on Monday in Brisbane.