(CNN) – Five pregnant women have been hospitalized and two experienced fetal losses from measles complications in New Zealand, as an outbreak sweeps the country.
The mothers, both in the northern city of Auckland, had caught measles, and complications led to the two fetal deaths, according to the Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS). They were both in their second trimester.
These aren’t counted as direct measles deaths, but rather “serious complications potentially related to maternal measles,” according to the ARPHS. Three other pregnant women with measles have also been hospitalized.
Measles are easily preventable — if you are vaccinated with one dose, it is 93% effective at preventing the disease. If you are vaccinated with two doses, as per most health authorities’ guidelines, it becomes 97% effective.
Pregnant women aren’t more likely to catch measles than anyone else — but if they aren’t vaccinated, they are at greater risk of miscarriage, premature labor, and having infants with low birth weights, according to the ARPHS.
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“These are very sad events for these two women and their families,” said Karen Bartholomew of the Auckland District Health Board in a press release. “We do know that measles can cause pregnancy complications including miscarriage and pre-term birth.”
New Zealand had officially eliminated measles for the first time in 2017 — but now it’s back, and is the largest outbreak there in 20 years, officials say.
And it’s largely concentrated in the major city of Auckland — of the 1,604 confirmed cases nationwide this year, 1,329 were in the Auckland region.
It’s not just mothers at risk — many young children and infants have caught measles, a highly contagious viral illness that causes high fevers, cough, runny nose, and rashes. Babies under six months are too young to be vaccinated, so they are among the most vulnerable during outbreaks like these.
Because children are more susceptible to measles complications like pneumonia, the spike in children’s cases has also caused a disproportionately high rate of hospitalization. Normally, hospitalization rates during outbreaks are around 10% — in Auckland, it’s at 35-40%.
More than half of children under 5 with measles have been hospitalized, according to the ARPHS.
The New Zealand government has set up a national response center to help combat the outbreak, as well as new outreach centers that offer free vaccinations, according to CNN affiliate Radio New Zealand.
Vaccination is mandatory in many countries like France and Italy — but not in New Zealand. As the outbreak spreads, there have been more calls for legislation making vaccination mandatory — one petition even reached the Parliament in June.
But health officials are cautiously hopeful that they may have reached the peak of the outbreak, and that cases may begin dropping soon, Radio New Zealand reported.
Other countries are also facing measles crises. The United States experienced its largest outbreak since 2000 just a few months ago, and four European countries lost their measles-free status in August after the disease made a comeback after being eradicated years ago.
Recent outbreaks of the potentially fatal viral disease in various countries have been blamed on the growth of the anti-vaccination movement, which has spread via social media and discourages parents from immunizing their children against measles and other diseases.
Right-wing populist politicians including Italy’s Matteo Salvini, who has promoted a bill removing mandatory vaccination for children, have also been influential in pulling the public away from scientific orthodoxy.
In the US, outbreaks have largely been among children in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community whose parents have refused to vaccinate them.
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