The government has issued a warning for anyone thinking of travelling to Auckland to update their measles vaccination two weeks before visiting, or else stay away.
Aotearoa is facing its worst outbreak of the disease in over 22 years, with 812 cases recorded in Auckland and 975 nationally as of Tuesday, and public health experts warning its spread to the Pacific Islands is “inevitable”.
“If you’re thinking of travelling into or out of Auckland, you should make sure you’re vaccinated at least two weeks before you go,” associate health minister Julie Anne Genter said in a statement this week.
“This includes children from 12 months old.”
The government is scrambling to contain the outbreak, with both inbound and outbound tourist urged to update their inoculations.
An unknowingly infected NZ teenager visited Disneyland and other Californian tourist stops earlier this month, possibly spreading measles on her US travels, and a tourist visiting Queenstown from Auckland was confirmed to have been carrying the disease – the third case reported in the resort town in recent days.
The threat to Pacific islanders is particularly concerning, according to Dr Teuila Percival, an expert in Pacific health who works at south Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital.
“It’s a considerable risk that it spreads to the Pacific Islands now, there is particular concern for countries such as Samoa, Tonga and the Cook Islands which have lower vaccination rates,” she said.
Tauranga is this weekend due to host a major junior sporting competition, the AIMS Games, attracting 11,500 children from around New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific to compete in 23 sports over six days.
Health authorities are urging schools and parents to pay close attention to the health of children looking to compete. The outbreak has already forced the cancelling of New Zealand Rugby League’s secondary schools competition, due to be held in Auckland this week.
AIMS Games organisers have sent out information packages to the participating schools and uploaded a letter from Toi Te Ora Public Health medical officer Dr Phil Shoemack to their website stating anyone with the virus must stay away.
“Do not include in your team anyone who is unwell with any of the symptoms of measles – fever, runny nose, cough, sore red eyes or rash,” Dr Shoemack said.
“Toi Te Ora Public Health realises that these sports tournaments are very important for schools, and for students, however this does need to be balanced with the risk of spreading measles.”
While the vaccination coverage rate for two-year-olds in New Zealand is at 91 percent – comparable to Australia – the coverage rate for those aged 16-29 is believed to be lower but hard to ascertain as data is less comprehensive.
Measles cases are rising globally, particularly in India, Ukraine and the Philippines. Some wealthy nations such as France and the US also show a high number of cases as parents shun vaccines for philosophical or religious reasons, or over a now debunked medical report linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism.
Genter said nurses could be deployed to work in shifts through makeshift community clinics to try to immunise as many people as possible across Auckland. The current outbreak has mostly affected young people aged up to four and from 15 to 29.