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Barbados ‘still measles-free’ despite rapid US spread

by Emmanuel Joseph
4 min read
Dr Arthur Phillips

Barbadians have been urged not to panic over the rapid spread of measles across the US, one of the island’s leading tourism source markets — even amid concerns about “complacency” leading to a lower uptake of the measles vaccine here.

Health officials in the United States have raised alarms about a sharp rise in cases of measles, a highly infectious viral illness that spreads through the air and can cause serious complications or even death. During the first quarter of this year alone, there have already been approximately 30 per cent of the total measles cases reported since 2020. Medical experts view this sudden surge as a significant setback to efforts aimed at eliminating measles from the US.

But in a bid to console residents here, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Arthur Phillips said on Thursday that Barbados has maintained its measles elimination status up to 2023.

“There have been no confirmed cases of measles in Barbados in the 21st century thus far. The last confirmed case of measles in Barbados was in 1991,” Dr Phillips told Barbados TODAY.

“There is an annual verification process to certify the elimination of measles in countries, and this includes the ability of the country to demonstrate that there is a strong epidemiological surveillance system in place, which Barbados has consistently demonstrated.”

Turning his attention to measles prevention, he said Barbados, like other countries, had seen a decline in measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine coverage in 2020, associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. But he said the trend had rebounded, although not to the ideal levels.

Dr Phillips said: “In 2022 and 2023, there was a steady reversal of the declining trend in coverage. For 2022, the MMR coverage for the first dose was 85 per cent and the MMR coverage for the second dose was 73 per cent. At the end of 2023, the MMR coverage for the first dose was 90 per cent and the MMR coverage for the second dose was 76 per cent,” he revealed. “Two doses of MMR vaccine are needed to ensure maximum protection against measles and overall, the coverage is well below the targeted 95 per cent.”

Dr Phillips explained that one dose of MMR vaccine is 93 per cent effective at preventing measles, and two doses are 97 per cent effective. The MMR vaccine’s first dose is usually administered at age one and the second dose at 18 months.

The senior medical official pointed out that the immunisation programme has historically performed “very well” and has maintained routine vaccination, including MMR vaccine coverage at “reasonably high levels”.

“This success,” Dr Phillips contended, “has led to good population immunity and now unfortunately to some complacency within the population.”

He said that interventions aimed at improving MMR coverage include new and ongoing activities supervised by the Senior Health Sisters in the various polyclinics.

These activities include reviewing vaccine registers to identify children that have defaulted from vaccination so that their parents can be called, and appointments scheduled for vaccination at the polyclinic. They also involve visits to nurseries and daycare facilities by public health nurses to check vaccination cards and alert parents of children who are missing vaccines through written notices. That activity was started in February and is ongoing, Dr Phillips said.

MMR vaccine coverage was also tackled by the opening of several clinics on Saturdays during March and is aimed at continuing throughout the year.

Dr Phillips announced that MMR immunisation was also being taken to the community to vaccinate eligible children who missed their shots in 2020 through 2023.

“This includes introduction of the new mobile bus recently commenced to facilitate the delivery of health interventions more directly within communities around Barbados,” he said.

Barbados will also be taking part in Vaccine Week of the Americas which runs from April 20-27, and features health fairs and exhibitions and open days at polyclinics. The week begins with two health fairs on Saturday the Emerald City Complex, Six Roads St Philip, and Massy Supermarket and Shopping Complex, Warrens, St Michael.

In the US, from 2020 through 2023, there was an average of five measles cases in the first quarter of each year. Those low numbers were due, in part, to the COVID pandemic, when fewer people were interacting in person. By contrast, this year’s first-quarter tally was 97, according to a report the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday.

“The rapid increase in the number of reported measles cases during the first quarter of 2024 represents a renewed threat to elimination,” the authors wrote.

Measles has been considered eliminated in the US since 2000, meaning the disease is no longer constantly present, though there are still occasional outbreaks there.


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