Ontario child under 5 dies of measles: provincial health agency

A colourized electron transmission micrograph of measles virus particles. Cases of the highly infectious virus are on the rise globally. (CBC, UK Health Security Agency - image credit)
A colourized electron transmission micrograph of measles virus particles. Cases of the highly infectious virus are on the rise globally. (CBC, UK Health Security Agency - image credit)

A child under five years old has died of measles in Ontario, according to the provincial public health agency — the first such death in the province since 1989, when tracking began.

In an update published Thursday, Public Health Ontario (PHO) said the child was not vaccinated against the highly infectious respiratory virus. It did not indicate when the child died or their specific age.

The provincial agency said in an email statement that the death was reported by Hamilton Public Health Services.

"A measles-related death is a rare and tragic event. Our thoughts are with the family during this difficult time," a spokesperson for PHO said.

"Prior to this reported death, there were no deaths from an acute illness of measles identified in Ontario through provincial surveillance since 1989, which is as far back as the Ontario data goes," they added.

Cases on the rise

Measles has been on the rise in both Ontario and elsewhere in Canada as cases increase globally, particularly in Europe, which has seen tens of thousands of infections over the last year.

There have been 22 cases in the province so far this year, PHO says — level of infections matching a recent high set in 2014, when there was the same number over the entire calendar year.

All of the cases were in people born after 1970, including 13 children. In 12 of those instances, the children were unimmunized, while the vaccination status of one was unknown.

Five infections, all in unvaccinated children under five years old, required hospitalization, the report says.

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Health offered condolences to the family of the deceased child.

"Our heart goes out to the family that has tragically lost their child. Our thoughts are with them as they navigate this challenging time," the spokesperson said. "We remind all Ontarians to stay up to date with their vaccinations to ensure themselves, and their loved ones are protected against infectious diseases."

Travel a factor, agency says

Most of the total measles cases this year, 15 of 22, were linked to travel, PHO says.

"In Ontario, measles has been rare, owing to the successful elimination of measles in Canada and high immunization coverage. As a result, measles cases are predominantly associated with travel," the report says.

"Due to an increase in measles activity globally, Ontario has begun to see more cases of measles."

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases consultant at Toronto General Hospital, says Canadians planning to travel should ensure they are protected against the virus given the rise in infections abroad.

"The vaccine is extremely effective. It's safe, it's widely available, and it's free. Is it perfect? Of course not. Nothing's perfect, but it's really, really, really good," he told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday.

Bogoch said interruptions to routine childhood vaccination schedules during the COVID-19 pandemic means that some young children may have missed a dose.

For Canadian children, the typical schedule is now two doses, both administered before they enter school. The first dose of the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine should be given when a child is 12 to 15 months of age and the second at 18 months, or any time after that, but no later than around school entry, notes the Canadian immunization guide.

For infants set to travel internationally with their caregivers, especially to destinations with high rates of measles infection, the first shot can be moved up to six months in some cases, Bogoch said.