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Australia declared measles-free

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Australia is among the first countries in the Western Pacific to be declared measles-free, underlining the effectiveness of the nation’s comprehensive vaccination program.

While outbreaks of the deadly disease remain common in much of the world, the World Health Organisation said the infection was no longer endemic in Australia, Mongolia, Macao and South Korea.

Australia’s measles-free status was verified by an international panel of infectious disease experts based on documentation showing the country had been able to interrupt endemic measles virus transmission for a period of at least 36 months.

The WHO said that achieving this ambitious yet realistic goal required the commitment of funding and resources to implement population-wide immunisation programs, backed by effective surveillance systems.

Achieving measles-free status means that the only cases occurring in Australia will involve people who caught the disease while overseas, or were infected by someone who had picked up the virus while overseas.

Queensland infectious disease expert Dr Stephen Lambert said the WHO declaration was a testament to the hard work of health professionals for eliminating any local strains of measles.

“It really drives home the message that no one should get sick from measles in Australia,” he said, but warned against complacency.

“The measles-free status can only be maintained if high vaccination rates are sustained – that means parents get their kids vaccinated, and adults ensure their immunisations are up to date too,” he said.

His comments followed the release of data last month showing that more than 75,000 young children were not fully vaccinated in 2012-13, with vaccination rates particularly low in pockets of the country.

Measles infections continue to occur.

Early this year more than 15 people caught the highly-infectious disease after attending a dance competition in Sydney where a Filipino competitor was found to be carrying the bug.

And so far this year there have been 11 confirmed cases in Queensland – six of which were acquired in the Philippines, one in Vietnam, and one in Papua New Guinea.

Dr Lambert said such outbreaks underlined the need for people to make sure their vaccinations, and those of their children, were up to date.

“If all people travelling to regions that still have measles, such as many countries in South East Asia, were vaccinated before leaving, none of these Queenslanders would have experienced measles,” Prof Lambert said. “Because people are contagious before they feel unwell and the virus is transmitted very easily, measles spreads like wildfire.”

“If we all did our bit in getting vaccinated, we would protect those who can’t be protected by having it themselves, and we’d also be contributing to a healthier region and the total elimination of measles.”

Internationally, the disease remains a major killer, claiming 330 lives every day.

But the WHO said steady progress was being made to reduce and eradicate the infection.

It said measles deaths in the Western Pacific region have plunged in the past decade, from 12,100 in 2000 to 2000 in 2012 – a result it attributed in large part to mass vaccination campaigns.

Since 2009, more than 230 million children in the region had been immunised against measles, and more than one billion globally.

Adrian Rollins