Fears of measles resurgence as COVID-19 disrupts childhood immunisation programmes

As New Zealand awaits the first of its COVID-19 vaccines, Kiwis are being warned not to lose sight of another dangerous virus - measles.

The pandemic has disrupted childhood immunisation programmes around the world and public health officials are bracing for a major measles resurgence.

"There is big concern that because of the effects of COVID and the effect on health services that immunisation coverage rates for childhood programmes have dived dramatically in many countries," says Immunisation Advisory Centre director Dr Nikki Turner.

"This is really worrying, we could see as much damage from measles returning as we do from COVID in some countries."

University of Auckland vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris says it's not a matter of if but when.

"Ultimately we're going to see measles resurgence, it's already been resurging," she says.

"I think things have probably got worse, so that is going to be an ongoing problem."

While our borders remain under tight COVID restrictions we're ok, however, once they reopen the disease will return if we don't keep our coverage rate high.

"Measles is only a plane ride away and the moment our borders are slightly more open we will see measles coming back into New Zealand," says Dr Turner.

The 2019 outbreak saw thousands of pupils forced to stay home from school. There were almost 2200 cases, and more than a third were hospitalised.

New Zealand is currently in the middle of an MMR catch-up programme but Dr Turner admits it's going really slowly.

"With COVID and everything else going on for our country really our eye is off the ball for measles," she says.

"Once it's off the ball measles comes back straight away. It is the most highly infectious virus we know for people to come back to the country."

She says while we're looking ahead to the arrival of COVID vaccines, we shouldn't forget about measles.