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© Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

A low immunization rate has made parts of Southern Alberta a hotbed for measles, with 14 confirmed cases and more expected.

For the past two weeks, Alberta Health Services officials have been operating a portable measles assessment centre outside the Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge while staging clinics so that infants six to 12 months old can be immunized. That may have slowed the spread of the highly contagious airborne disease – but it hasn't stopped it.

Vivien Suttorp, Alberta's South Zone medical officer of health, said Thursday that the Lethbridge area has some of the lowest immunization rates in the province, less than 60 per cent, well off the stated goal of 98 per cent for Albertans. That has health workers targeting communities near Lethbridge and also expanding north and east to Brooks and Medicine Hat, where immunization clinics will soon be established.

"We've had mumps and whooping cough [previously in Southern Alberta]," Dr. Suttorp said. "That doesn't happen in most developed communities. It's a lack of herd immunity … I can't speak for individual groups [who refuse to have their children immunized], but there's a lot of misinformation out there. There's a misconception people can hide in the herd. Some have religious convictions. All of those reasons are contributing."

Dr. Suttorp and AHS officials have tried to overcome the fear of the measles vaccine: that it's too risky and can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis or death. To counter any religious concerns against vaccinations, they have even "spoken to church leaders and sent info to churches," Dr. Suttorp noted.

The first confirmed case in Southern Alberta involved a Grade 9 student at the Coaldale Christian School who contracted measles while on a recent trip to the Netherlands. The student had been to his church and to hockey practice while infected before being sent home from school. In the Netherlands, more than 1,200 people have contracted measles and 82 have been admitted to hospital since May.

Glen Armstrong, the head of the University of Calgary's department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases, dubbed what has happened in Lethbridge akin to "the perfect storm."

"You have a low immunization rate, a lot of susceptible people and someone brings an infection into the community, like a school, and boom," Dr. Armstrong said. "It's kind of incomprehensible that we can be in this situation. There are a lot of reasons why [people say no to vaccinations]. Complacency is one for sure. We're victims of our own success. People say, 'We don't have measles any more,' so they don't get vaccinated."

Alberta health officials are also aware of what happened two years ago in Quebec, where 776 cases were diagnosed, with 88 per cent of them coming three months after the first case was confirmed. While Dr. Suttorp has done projections based on what she is seeing here, she wasn't about to estimate how many people would be affected in and around the Lethbridge area.

"The best case: We have one and no more. Worst case: We see this ongoing and it spreads," she said. "It's hard to say. I'm not going to make a prediction."

So far, there are no reports of measles in Calgary.