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A student receives a measles vaccine injection.

VALENTIN FLAURAUD/REUTERS

With 28 confirmed cases in southern Alberta, provincial health officials have ramped up their measles immunization efforts, targeting a pair of towns within 140 kilometres of Edmonton.

Starting Thursday, a drop-in vaccination clinic will be held in Lacombe, south of Edmonton, with another to open Friday in Two Hills, located northeast of the provincial capital. It is the first time Alberta health workers have established immunization centres outside the southern zone of the province, where virtually one case of measles has been documented per day since late October.

Deena Hinshaw, Alberta Central Zone chief medical officer, spoke of how easily the disease can spread and said the towns were selected in part because of their immunization counts. Two Hills County has a 68-per-cent immunization rate, while Lacombe County is far better at 84 per cent; that puts the latter on par with Edmonton and Calgary, which have remained free of measles. But Lacombe and Two Hills were also tabbed because of their social, agricultural and business connections with southern Lethbridge County and its farming communities.

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"We looked at the low immunization rates and travel patterns to the south zone," Dr. Hinshaw explained. "There are no cases of measles (anywhere in the Central Zone), but we're trying to be as pro-active as we can. This is part of a provincially co-ordinated response."

Low immunization rates have enabled a measles outbreak that began with a Grade 9 student from Coaldale, Alta., having contracted the disease while on a trip to the Netherlands. Since late May, more than 2,000 people in the Netherlands have been infected with measles and at least one person has died.

Alberta health officials have been asked repeatedly why there are towns and counties in the southern portion of the province with immunization rates as low as 50 per cent. Complacency is cited as a significant reason, with people convinced measles has been next to eradicated. Religious convictions and stands against any form of immunization have also played a role, as has the belief that children are more at risk from the vaccine and its possible side effects, from a fever to encephalitis.

Edda West is co-founder of the Vaccination Risk Awareness Network. She manages a website that contains stories from parents whose children have suffered adverse reactions after being immunized for measles.

"The advent of mass vaccination with the triple live virus MMR [measles, mumps, rubella] vaccine has altered the landscape of epidemiology which has changed an ordinary childhood illness into something to be feared," said Ms. West, who is based in Winlaw, B.C. "Health officials are running scared now because they know that the vaccine has pushed the disease into the two most vulnerable groups at highest risk from measles: the very young – babies below one year – and adults."

Along with running new immunization clinics, Alberta health workers are keen to educate the public on measles, how contagious it is and how best to avoid it. Vaccinations, they insist, are the best way to ensure public health.

"Many peoples' decisions are based on inaccurate information," Dr. Hinshaw said. "We struggle to correct that. People don't see the disease in their backyard all that often, so they don't know why it's so important to get the vaccine."

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