STATEMENT GIVEN BY THE MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT
HONOURABLE CARVIN MALONE
AT THE THIRD SITTING OF THE FIRST SESSION OF THE FOURTH HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
ON FRIDAY, 17TH MAY 2019
Mr. Speaker, 2019 is proving to be challenging as there has been an upsurge in the number of reported cases of Measles worldwide, notably in South America, the Philippines, the european Union and the United States of America. As of May 14th 2019, the Centre of Disease Control has reported 839 confirmed cases of measles across 23 states and this number is growing exponentially. With international travel and tourism, there is real risk of measles being reintroduced into the territory,
Despite being certified as measles free since 2015 by the World Health Organization, we still need to remain vigilant. Measles is one of the most contagious diseases. If one person contracts it, 9 out of 10 people close to that person, who are not immune, are likely to contract measles. Measles can be dangerous, causing life threatening complications like brain inflammation, pneumonia, middle ear infections and even death.
Mr. Speaker, according to latest statistics provided by the CDC and WHO, 2019 has seen a 300 percent increase in the number of measles cases worldwide in comparison to 2018. This increase is due to a decline in vaccination rates as a result of “vaccine fear or hesitancy”. This fear is a consequence of vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, such hesitancy has created widening pockets of unvaccinated children which have now laid the foundation for the measles outbreak currently affecting numerous countries worldwide.
Mr. Speaker - As a premier tourist destination, we are particularly vulnerable, as the Virgin Islands is host to approximately 335,000 visitors annually via air and sea- a large portion of whom arrive from countries where measles and rubella are everyday occurrences. This poses a significant threat to the health of the people since it is possible that a case of measles could be introduced into the territory due to an infected visitor or returning resident who being susceptible contracts measles virus after exposure to an infected person. These persons could then expose others who are not vaccinated, or inadequately vaccinated, potentially creating a serious public health event.
Be assured Mr. Speaker that the Ministry of Health and Social Development along with the British Virgin Islands Health Services Authority remain committed to the safety of our people and are working closely with our partners in the Caribbean Public Health Agency and the Pan American Health Organization on the development and implementation of further pre-cautionary measures.
It must be emphasized that there is no cure or treatment for measles and therefore prevention is key. At present, the best preventative measure against this dangerous disease is vaccination with the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Two doses of the MMR vaccine, preferably first administered at 1 year and again at 15 months is proven to be 95-97% effective in providing immunity and is necessary to protect the people, especially children between ages of 1 -10 years.
It is of interest, that although children are particularly at risk, adults too are also vulnerable and those vaccinated between 1958-1999 should not assume that they are protected and may be more susceptible to contracting measles due to a waning of immunity. Therefore Mr. speaker it is essential that persons residing in the Virgin Islands confirm with a health care provider their vaccination status, by proof of recorded information- providing the date and year vaccinated with two doses of the MMR vaccine. Those who are unvaccinated or inadequately immune (only having one dose) are strongly advised to visit health clinics to get the protection only vaccines can provide.
Mr. Speaker, in response to the increased cases and to mitigate any serious public health emergencies from all vaccine preventable diseases, we are combining high quality surveillance, public health promotion and multi-sectorial collaboration, with a strong childhood immunization program. Since the beginning of the year the Ministry of Health has enhanced its response, including sensitization and training of healthcare professionals and the development of integrated outbreak strategies and rapid response teams. Although our National Immunization Program has diligently maintained immunization coverage of 95% regarding MMR coverage, information relating to the revised target groups and district coverage for MMR1 and MMR2 vaccines has been communicated to all health teams. This is to ensure we maintain the recommended target of 95%, which is necessary to sustain herd immunity to protect those who cannot be vaccinated- like immune-compromised individuals.
Additionally Mr. Speaker, the Ministry is recirculating communication to sensitize doctors and other health professionals about the increased risk of measles importation and to heighten the index of suspicion for measles. The communication is also a reminder to health care practitioners regarding the surveillance protocol for fever and rash, including the importance of immediate notification and sampling on first contact and prioritizing vaccination of all children in the target group with two doses of MMR vaccine.
A public education campaign has also commenced to sensitize members of the public to guard against this infection. Persons are advised to call the Ministry of Health or visit the nearest health center for more information. Mr. Speaker, we must acknowledge that despite our best efforts, it is ultimately the public’s responsibility to ensure they protect themselves and others. We will continue to urge everyone, especially parents and guardians to check their child/children immunization records to see if they are up-to-date. In addition, the healthcare providers are be urged to remain objective, providing only accurate, scientific-based information to counter misinformation that may deter persons from getting vaccinated. Thank you.