UAE families urged to avoid air travel if children have early signs of measles

Robust national immunisation programme offers the best defence against rising cases, experts say

A campaign to educate families takes place at the Canadian Kids Nursery in Dubai. Photo: Canadian Kids Nursery
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Families in the UAE have been warned to avoid air travel if children are displaying the early symptoms of measles, a leading expert warned.

The warning came amid disrupted childhood vaccination programmes and a rampant spread of the disease across Europe that has placed medics on alert to safeguard children from a similar outbreak in the UAE.

About a 45-fold increase in measles cases was reported in Europe in 2023 by the World Health Organisation, with doctors blaming poor access to vaccination services during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nurseries in Dubai have offered extra advice to parents ahead of a potential increase in UAE cases, although doctors said the country’s robust immunisation programme should keep an outbreak at bay.

Dr Rachel Herbert, an infectious disease consultant at Burjeel Medical City, warned against air travel for families with children who may be showing early symptoms of measles.

“People should be aware of the vaccination status of children,” said Dr Herbert.

“If your child is unvaccinated, then they are at risk as measles is spread through airborne droplets.”

Figures from the WHO showed a 18 per cent increase in measles cases in 2022 from the previous year and a 43 per cent increase in the number of deaths globally.

With Dubai and Abu Dhabi major travel hubs, doctors said parents should ensure their child’s vaccination status is up to date to keep them safe.

“The recent rise in measles cases is due to the disruption of childhood measles vaccination programmes due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Dr Ram Shukla, a specialist in infectious diseases at NMC Royal Hospital, Sharjah.

“This is primarily related to increasing numbers of susceptible populations in a community, who are unexposed, unvaccinated or under-vaccinated.

“Other factors are certain groups who do not take vaccines due to their belief system, parental refusal of vaccines, safety concerns or vaccine hesitancy."

He added that outbreaks can also occur when travellers from countries with low levels of vaccinations travel to other nations.

Measles is extremely contagious with about 90 per cent of unvaccinated people getting infected following exposure.

In 2022, 37 countries experienced large or disruptive measles outbreaks compared to 22 in the previous year.

Of the countries experiencing outbreaks, 28 were in the WHO African region, six in the Eastern Mediterranean, two in South-East Asia, and one in Europe.

WHO has 47 member states in Africa, however, not all countries conduct regular reports.

Vaccination campaigns have since been stepped up across the UK and Europe along with testing.

Common symptoms

Common symptoms include a high fever, cough, runny nose, red watery eyes and a rash that typically starts on the hairline or face and then down the body.

Patients may need to be admitted to hospital when there are complications such as a high fever.

“In the UK, one of the common themes is that during Covid, people didn't attend their routine vaccinations because clinics were either closed or difficult to access,” said Dr Herbert, who was recently working for the NHS in Middlesex before arriving in the UAE.

“As a result, there was a big drop in the number of vaccinations during the pandemic – we definitely had pockets in the community where there were low vaccination rates.

“You would see outbreaks of measles and complications from that, which was highly concerning as a health professional.”

The measles vaccine is widely regarded to be safe and effective and has been available for decades. It protects up to 96 per cent if two vaccines are taken.

The US Centres for Disease Control said more than 61 million doses of measles vaccines were postponed or missed in the US from 2020 to 2022 due to Covid-19.

Nurseries on guard

The Dubai Health Authority immunisation programme is continually updated to include the best and safest advice, with the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine starting from the age of one.

Amid the warnings, Canadian Kids Nursery in Dubai has stepped up precautions and issued advice to parents,

“The UAE and Dubai in particular are vulnerable to attracting infectious diseases from abroad through travellers, as it is the meeting point for communities from all countries of the world,” said Faten El Hajj, nursery manager.

“The importance of measles awareness in nurseries cannot be overstated, as it plays a crucial role in preventing outbreaks and safeguarding the health and well-being of children and nursery staff.

“We are enlightening parents on the significance of vaccinations.”

Updated: January 25, 2024, 3:00 AM