Quebec College of Physicians warns against ‘vaccine hesitancy’

The WHO has observed a 30% increase in the global incidence of measles since 2016, attributing the spike to gaps in vaccination coverage.

As the Montreal Public Health Department scrambles to contain the city’s first measles outbreak in years, the Quebec College of Physicians is warning against the dangers of vaccine hesitancy in the general population.

On Thursday, authorities declared a small outbreak in the city after reporting two new measles infections, raising the total to seven this year. What has worried public health officials is the fact that the two new infections are secondary, meaning that the individuals contracted the highly contagious disease in the city and not abroad.

The last time Quebec reported a measles outbreak was in 2015 in the Lanaudière region, when 163 people got sick.

This time around, Montreal authorities are being especially vigilant, given the surge this year in the number of measles cases in the United States and around the world. The state of New York has been particularly hard hit, with more than 700 cases.

In Montreal, the public health department has traced the source of the latest outbreak to an unvaccinated individual who returned with the measles from a trip to Paris on April 26. That person transmitted the virus to an unvaccinated female family member, and the girl then spread the measles to a health worker who was previously vaccinated.

The infected health worker then visited six public locations from May 11 to May 14. As many as 400 people might have been exposed to the contagious health worker, including children at a daycare in Town of Mount Royal.

On Friday, nurses visited that daycare, the Garderie Aventuriers d’Outremont on Bates Rd.

“The nurses were here to administer vaccines to the children who were at risk,” said Angela Barbato, co-owner of the daycare, which has a permit for 70 children up to the age of 5.

“I can confirm that vaccines were administered, but I can’t elaborate on the number. That’s confidential information.”

Barbato added that “we are definitely preoccupied and the parents are preoccupied as well, but with the guidance of Health Canada we have been able to inform the parents of what’s to come.”

Meanwhile, the public health department opened five vaccine centres that will provide free shots until June 14 to anyone who hasn’t been immunized. The following groups are considered protected: anyone born before 1970; those born from 1970 to 1979 who received a single shot; and those born after 1980 who received two shots. (Two shots confer 95 per cent protection against the measles.)

Authorities are encouraging anyone with doubts about whether they’ve been vaccinated to call 811, the Info-Santé hotline. By Friday afternoon, fewer than a dozen people had been referred for vaccination by Info-Santé, said Justin Meloche, a spokesperson for the public health department.

In addition to administering vaccines, nurses have also given immunoglobulins to unvaccinated individuals who were exposed to an infected person. Immunoglobulins are antibodies to boost the immune response temporarily to decrease the likelihood of catching the measles.

On Wednesday, Dr. Yves Robert, secretary to the Quebec College of Physicians, published on open letter on the professional order’s website urging Quebecers not to be seduced by doubts concerning the efficacy of vaccines.

“In recent weeks, there has been a return of measles in North America and, at the same time, the return of the periodic debate around immunization,” Robert wrote, adding that a “drop of doubt sometimes has more effect than an ocean of evidence.”

“We no longer remember the risks of what we wanted to prevent and we only talk about the side effects of the preventive tool, real or hypothetical.”

The World Health Organization has observed a 30-per-cent increase in the global incidence of measles since 2016, attributing the spike to gaps in vaccination coverage.

In Quebec, a study found that in 2016, 94.2 per cent of two-year-olds had received both doses of the measles vaccine, up from 87.6 per cent in 2006. But that same report related comments by parents reflecting vaccine hesitancy, with some parents gleaning information from unreliable social media platforms.

And according to the latest statistics by the provincial government, measles vaccine coverage stood at 78 per cent in elementary schools in 2018, far below the goal of 95 per cent coverage.

Measles can cause high fever, coughing, sneezing and a widespread painful rash. The infection can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis, and can be fatal.

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