Measles outbreak spreading in South Africa

JOHANNESBURG — The cause of a measles outbreak sweeping South Africa has not as yet been determined, but initial suspicions point to religious objections and unfounded fears that immunizations against the disease increase the risk of autism in children, IRIN reported Feb. 12.

The National Institute of Communicable Disease said last week that the Western Cape had recorded the highest number of new measles cases, 82, bringing the total in the province to 447, although Gauteng province remained worst affected, with 4,359 cases since the outbreak began almost a year ago. In other provinces KwaZulu-Natal recorded 631 cases, North West 563, and Eastern Cape 314.

The World Health Organization describes measles as a highly contagious viral disease affecting mostly children, and that it can be effectively prevented by immunization.

Symptoms usually appear about eight to 12 days after infection and include high fever, bloodshot eyes and tiny white spots on the inside of the mouth. A rash also develops, starting on the face and upper neck and gradually spreading over the body.

Most people recover in two to three weeks, "However, particularly in malnourished children and people with reduced immunity, measles can cause serious complications, including blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhea, ear infection and pneumonia," WHO states on its Web site.

Adrian Puren, NICD’s deputy director of virology, told IRIN there were 40 confirmed measles cases in South Africa in 2008, and the key to preventing outbreaks was a comprehensive vaccination program.

The high infection rate suggested there were "a large number of susceptible individuals" who had not received the highly effective vaccinations, which he attributed to religious objections or the belief that the measles, mumps and rubella inoculation was a cause of autism.

The MMR vaccination program in South Africa provides children with a first vaccination at about 9 months old, followed by a measles booster at 18 months free of charge. Private medical care offers the option of a separate measles vaccination, or the three-in-one MMR.

Earlier in February, The Lancet, the highly respected medical journal, debunked an article describing a link between MMR and autism, published in 1998. British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield surmised in a paper that from a sample of 12 children who had received the vaccination, eight had displayed effects of autism.

The article elicited a strong response and by 2004, 10 of the 13 co-authors had distanced themselves from it after charges that the results had been falsified.

IRIN is a UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.