South Africa’s 2022 Measles Outbreak: Everything You Want to Know

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What’s Happening Right Now?

The National Institute for Infectious Diseases (NICD), has issued an update on their alert after 35 cases of Measles were reported within 30 days. It’s not time to panic yet, though. This outbreak is so far limited to Limpopo Province, in the Greater Sekhukhune District.

This is So Small, Why Is 35 People An Outbreak?

An outbreak means there has been more disease than expected.

A Measles’ outbreak needs to be declared, when there has been at least three laboratory-confirmed measles cases reported within 30 days in a district.

How Old Were The Children Infected?

The initial children with the confirmed measles cases were 11 years old, 1-year-old and 11 months. But now cases are ranging between 9 months to 42 years old

What Is Measles?

Measles (also known as rubeola) is an infection caused by the measles virus. This virus is incredibly contagious but easily preventable with the help of a vaccine (Leung et al., 2018).

History Of Measles In South Africa

Measles has been around for at least 1500 years according to writings found in China, India and the Mediterranean basin (Fetter et al., 1996).

But this virus also has a long history in South Africa. First appearing in Cape Town in 1789 the virus took hold, leading to waves in 1806-7 1839, 1852, 1861, and 1871 (Fetter et al., 1996). During this time, infections were relatively uncommon but deadly (Fetter et al., 1996).

Over the next 50 years, the virus slowly spread east to cause epidemics in places like King Williams Town. A place which suffered 6 years of Measles waves. Although it should be noted that as the virus became more common, it became less deadly (Fetter et al., 1996).

The Anglo-Boer War

So when the Anglo-Boer war happened, the deadliness of the virus shocked everyone (Fetter et al., 1996). At the time, there was wild speculation on what was killing these prisoners, with rumours even circulating that they had been poisoned by the British military (Fetter et al., 1996).

Fetter et al., (1996), examined primary sources that, to their knowledge, have not been previously consulted. They found that, measles was the leading cause of death in camps that were established for Boer and African civilians in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (Fetter et al., 1996). Based on the death registers, measles accounted for at least 30% of all deaths in these camps (Fetter et al., 1996).

Is Modern Measles Dangerous? = Yes

Measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases, and causes complications in 10% to 40% of patients (Leung et al., 2018).

Complications range from pneumonia and encephalitis (a swelling of the brain), to lifelong disabilities – permanent brain damage, blindness or hearing loss (WHO, 2018). These complications have real consequences, with over 5% of measles cases ending in death (Gignoux et al., 2021).

Who Is Most At Risk Of A Serious Measles Infection?

This virus mostly kills babies and very young children, but it can impact the elderly and those with compromised immune systems (CDC, 2020).

But those that are most at risk are unvaccinated children who are living in poor, remote communities where health systems are less able to cope with sudden increases in patients (Gignoux et al., 2021).

South Africa’s Measles Outbreak Part of A Global Issue

The number of measles cases reported worldwide has rapidly increased by 79% in just the first two months of 2022. It’s not just an issue for South Africa. Learn more about how this issue is spreading.

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