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Australia Could Be At Risk Of ‘Imported’ Measles Outbreak After Overseas Epidemics

Australia eliminated local measles spread in 2014 but experts have warned unvaccinated residents to urgently immunise against the disease, with fears deadly outbreaks in Samoa and NZ could have an impact closer to home.

At least 70 people, many of them young children, have died after contracting measles in Samoa in recent weeks. About 5000 more have been infected with the highly contagious disease.

Only about 30 per cent of young babies in the Pacific nation had been vaccinated against measles prior to the outbreak, with hospitals overwhelmed as the virus spread.

The World Health Organisation linked Samoa's low rate of vaccination with the rising anti-vaccination sentiment, following the deaths of two babies last year.

The deaths sparked immunisation fears after they were linked to the measles vaccination, but the deaths were later found to be a result of the vaccine being wrongly prepared.

Volunteers and aid workers responding to the measles crisis in Samoa. Image: Getty

The Samoan government said more than 90 per cent of eligible people have now been vaccinated against measles, thanks to an urgent immunisation drive.

Further outbreaks have been reported in Tonga, the Philippines and Fiji, while more than 2160 people in New Zealand -- including 1718 in the Auckland region alone -- have been diagnosed with the virus this year.

It has sparked travel warnings and immunisation reminders from Australian authorities.

At the same time, Victorian health officials are monitoring a small outbreak of measles.

Measles can present as an angry red rash. Image: Getty.

Three measles cases are currently active in the state, with a woman in her 50s, and a man and woman in their 30s, both being treated.

The state's health department issued warnings for people who may have had contact with the infected at Melbourne's Tullamarine airport, on Melbourne trams, on a Virgin Australia flight from Brisbane, at a Futsal centre, and at Hellenic Republic restaurant.

"In 2019 there have now been 56 cases of confirmed measles notified in Victoria," the health department said.

"Almost all cases are in people who are not fully immunised against measles, who have either travelled overseas or been in contact with travellers from overseas in Victoria."

The measles cases both home and abroad have led to health experts urging Australians to ensure they've received two doses of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine.

Australia has very high rates of vaccination against measles. Image: Getty

Up to 95 per cent of Australians are immunised against measles, but not everyone has had a second shot as recommended by authorities.

"We have high vaccination rates in Australia, so we would not likely have ongoing epidemics, but measles is spread by travel, so we could certainly see outbreaks in Australia due to travel to and from affected countries," Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity research program at the Kirby Institute, told 10 daily.

"All the outbreaks we have seen in Australia over the last several years are imported by travel."

MacIntyre said the New Zealand outbreak was a "concern", considering the high numbers of travellers to and from Australia, and the possibility travellers could bring the virus here.

Samoans are hanging red flags outside their homes to warn they have not been vaccinated against measles. Image: Getty

"There is also a lot of movement of people between Samoa and NZ, so the severe epidemic in Samoa could result in infections in Australia," she said.

Dr Frank Beard, associate director at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, said Australia had a high level of measles protection but feared such large-scale overseas events could head our way.

"We've eliminated the local spread of measles in Australia, but there's an ongoing risk of travellers importing measles back here," Beard told 10 daily.

"In the last few years, there's been an increase in measles globally. Not just Samoa but in Africa, Europe, Asia. Anywhere there are lots of people travelling, there's a risk around Australians going there or people coming back here."

The Samoan government says 90 per cent of eligible people have been vaccinated in recent emergency efforts. Image: Getty

The federal department urges Aussies travelling overseas to ensure they have their immunisations.

More than 140,000 people died as a result of measles in 2018, according to the WHO.

Up to 86 per cent of the world's children are vaccinated at an early age, with immunisations credited with saving 23 million lives worldwide since 2000.

Beard said the WHO had certified Australia as eliminating local measles spread in 2014, thanks to a high level of vaccination.

However, he and the Victorian health department warned some people born since 1966 believed they were fully vaccinated, despite only having received one of the two shots recommended by health authorities.

"Particularly for young adults, vaccine coverage is a bit lower. Up to 1992, only one dose of vaccine was delivered, and now it's two. If people don't have records of having two, or can't remember, it's safer to have an extra dose," Beard said.

"If you have one dose of the vaccine, you've got around 95 per cent protection, but with two, it's 99 per cent.

"It's one of the best vaccines available, and immunity is thought to be lifelong."

Children and babies are particularly at risk. Image: Getty

Beard also warned people who fear they have contracted measles to call their doctor before attending a hospital or clinic.

"Symptoms start with runny noses, red eyes and fever, then the classic nasty red rash all over. If you develop symptoms, ring ahead so the hospital or doctor can isolate you in a separate room so you don't infect other people in a waiting room," He urged.

"The critical issue is giving that pre-warning, so you don't get put in a waiting room. It's so contagious, it will get in the air and infect others."