Australia now 'measles-free': WHO

02 April, 2014

Australia is among the first countries in the World Health Organization's (WHO) Western Pacific Region to be declared measles-free.

Australia, Macao (China), Mongolia and the Republic of Korea are leading the way in eliminating measles, a virus that kills approximately 330 people worldwide every day – mostly children under the age of five.

"Australia can be very proud of what it has achieved so far through comprehensive public immunisation programs," said Angela Newbound, Co-Convenor of the Public Health Association of Australia's (PHAA) Immunisation Special Interest Group.

"Internationally far too many children still succumb to this virus that can be easily prevented.

"The WHO's announcement of measles elimination* by Australia is particularly exciting because we are among the first countries or areas in the region to receive this distinction.

"However, we must remain vigilant given the measles outbreaks in China, the Philippines and Vietnam during 2013 and early 2014. These outbreaks highlight the ongoing challenge in ensuring high and consistent coverage of immunisation programs.

"Despite these outbreaks, steady progress has been made with measles deaths in the region dropping by an estimated 84 per cent, from 12,100 in 2000 to just 2000 in 2012.

"This drop is largely attributable to an increase in high coverage with two doses of measles vaccine provided either during routine immunisation services or mass vaccination campaigns.

"It is worth remembering that the Western Pacific Region is home to more than 1.8 billion people – more than a quarter of the world's population – and includes a wide range of low, middle and high-income countries.

"While Australia has now been declared 'measles free', there is still an issue with occasional transmissions by overseas travellers – this remains a risk for people in the community who are unimmunised or only partially immunised.

"According to a report released by the National Health Performance Authority just last week, of 75,002 Australian children aged one, two and five years not fully immunised in 2012–13, almost 15,000 are registered as 'conscientious objectors'.

"Across five-year-old children the percentage registered under conscientious objector provisions ranged from close to 0.0 per cent in Far West NSW up to 7.1 per cent on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

"We must be mindful of the areas that have low levels of immunisation and the need to support those communities to improve their immunisation rates. Many children and adults in our communities remain at risk of measles."

Newbound asserted: "Australia still has some work to do if we are to continue to lead the way in eradicating the threat of measles both here and across the region."

* WHO defines that measles elimination can be verified when there is "documentation that shows interruption of endemic measles virus transmission for a period of at least 36 months" in the presence of a well-performing surveillance system and supportive genotyping evidence.