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© Valentin Flauraud/REUTERS

A portable assessment centre operates outside the Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge, Alta. Not far from there, three immunization clinics will be open at Exhibition Park.

With two cases of measles, and the fear of more to come, southern Alberta health officials are urging vaccinations and bracing for a possible outbreak that can be traced back to the Netherlands.

The confirmed case involves a Grade 9 student at the Coaldale Christian School who contracted the highly contagious airborne disease during a recent trip to the Netherlands. More than 1,200 people in the Netherlands had measles this spring, with the same strain of virus being found in British Columbia. The Fraser Valley region had 12 confirmed cases of measles before medical health officer Paul Van Buynder announced Wednesday the outbreak was over.

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Martin Lavoie, Alberta's deputy chief medical officer of health, tracked the student's whereabouts and calculated the measles incubation period to determine it originated overseas.

"Following this case, the teenager went to very public places," Dr. Lavoie said. "He went to school, to hockey practice. We know he was infected. …We're expecting to see more cases this week."

Vivien Suttorp, medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services south zone, had previously spoken of the B.C. situation and its ties to the Netherlands. She also noted the historical and cultural links between the two countries – how people travel back and forth – and warned that the Lethbridge area was especially vulnerable given its low immunization rate.

While AHS has a target immunization rate of 98 per cent for children, that count is less than 70 per cent in certain southern Alberta communities. In the county of Lethbridge, the number is 62 per cent for children receiving their first shot before the age of two.

Dr. Lavoie acknowledged there are many reasons for the poor immunization rates.

"Some choose to ignore it; it's not important enough a disease to do anything about. Some believe vaccines are not safe, which isn't true," Dr. Lavoie said. "Or there are some beliefs in the family, community or the people around them. It could be part of their culture or their religious beliefs that vaccines should not be used. But the message needs to get out: If you don't get immunized, everyone pays the price."

To try to contain the virus, Alberta health officials mobilized quickly to set up a portable assessment tent to diagnose symptoms (fever, cough, runny nose, blotchy rash). Makeshift clinics were organized to distribute the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is being offered to infants as young as six months old. Normally, children are given their MMR shot at the age of one, then another between four and six.

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The vaccine is being made available to younger infants because of the current concerns. "It is safe and effective," Dr. Suttorp said in a news release. "Infants will still require the regular immunization at one year and again at four to six years of age."

Unimmunized children are at risk of measles and its complications, which can lead to pneumonia, blindness and deafness. The most serious potential complication is brain inflammation (encephalitis), which occurs in approximately one in 1,000 cases. About one in 3,000 will die from measles.

The worry in southern Alberta is that the situation could become less like the one in the Fraser Valley and more like the 2011 outbreak in Quebec. In that year, 776 cases were determined. The first were reported in January, according to a Quebec government review, but the biggest spike in the number of infected patients (88 per cent) occurred between May and July – an indication of how the disease takes time to spread and how contagious it is.

The government review stated 615 cases were not considered immunized.

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