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Fears of measles outbreak in western Finland fade

No new cases of measles have appeared in Ostrobothnia despite one diagnosis last month in an area with a low vaccination rate.

Hoitajaa pitää kädessään rokotusruiskua neuvolassa.
Vaccination rates are relatively low in parts of western Finland. Image: Yle

Public health officials in western Finland say that no new cases of measles have been found since a child was diagnosed with the highly contagious illness in late November in the small town of Larsmo. Some patients have been tested for suspected cases, but the health centre in neighbouring Jakobstad says that there are no strong suspicions of new cases.

However they warn that more cases are still possible, as the child had been in contact with many other people before being diagnosed on 29 November, and measles can have an incubation period of up to 21 days.

The pre-school child contracted the virus while on a family trip to the Middle East, where there is an ongoing measles epidemic.

Authorities were concerned that an epidemic could break out in Larsmo, where only about three quarters of small children have received the measles vaccine. The corresponding figure elsewhere in Finland is over 90 percent.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), at least 93-95 percent of a population must be vaccinated to establish so-called herd immunity against measles. The illness can be fatal, especially to those with poor general immunity due to other serious illnesses.

"Laestadian community does not generally oppose vaccinations"

Larsmo is a mostly Swedish-speaking municipality of some 5,000 people, many of them members of fundamentalist religious communities. The child who fell ill is from a conservative Laestadian Lutheran family and had visited a prayer room where other unvaccinated children were present before being diagnosed.

Local paediatric nurse Katarina Palo tells Yle that the Finnish Laestadian community does not generally oppose vaccinations, but that peer pressure had built up in the area spurred by the writings of an anti-vaccination blogger.

Measles epidemics were common in Finland through the 1960s, breaking out every five to seven years, but the illness has been virtually eliminated in the country since 1970.

This year has seen a resurgence of the virus in Europe. The WHO says that a record 41,000 people were infected in the first half of the year, with 37 deaths. That is up from just over 5,000 cases just two years ago. The WHO attributes the explosion to lower numbers of people being vaccinated.

There was news last week of another measles infection in an adult in southern Finland's city of Espoo. According to city health officials, the individual contracted the disease while on a trip to Asia and received the vaccine during childhood, which reduces the risk of infecting others.

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