Serious outbreak of measles in Kerry sparks vaccine alert
At least 22 people have caught measles in a serious outbreak of the virus which has already led to several hospitalisations for the potentially life-threatening illness.
And seven more people are undergoing tests to find out if they have caught the virus, which in rare cases affects the lungs and brain.
The latest outbreak is largely centred on Kerry and first hit the county in mid-April. So far, there have been 22 confirmed cases in the north of the county.
Around 19 of these patients, who include infants, young children, teens and adults in their 20s, have had to be admitted to Kerry University Hospital for complications. Most have now recovered.
HSE public health specialist Dr Fiona Ryan said measles is all but eradicated in Ireland. However, the highly contagious illness was spread after people who were infected abroad returned here.
Around 30 people nationally have been diagnosed with measles so far this year, compared to five in 2015 and 33 in 2014.
"The way it comes into Ireland now is that somebody brings it in. Somebody who was infected travelled back to Kerry and this causes it to circulate in the community," explained Dr Ryan.
The HSE is not saying what country the Kerry outbreak originated in.
It has listed areas where different people who turned out to have measles passed through, including Dublin Airport in mid-May.
An infected person was on a Ryanair flight from Zadar in Croatia to Dublin on May 16 and another was in Limerick city while others were in Ballina, Co Mayo, and Enniscrone, Co Sligo.
Dr Ryan said the measles patients in Kerry have come from Ballyheigue, Dingle, Milltown and Tralee.
The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is given in two doses, at age 12 months and again at age four or five years. The vaccine take-up is currently high but it is still not enough to ensure 'herd immunity'.
Dr Ryan said "there are small numbers of people in the population who are not vaccinated against measles and these are vulnerable to the disease if they come into contact with an infected person".
Anyone who was born before 1978 probably got measles as a child and is immune. Dr Ryan said if people are unsure if they have had the two jabs they should go to their GP. They can have the doses a month apart.
Patients who have suspected measles should not go to their hospital emergency department, but should ask their GP to call to their home.
"The group we worry about are children under one year of age who are too young to be vaccinated," said Dr Ryan.
She said the time between exposure to measles and developing the illness is normally 14 days. "People are infectious from four days before a rash starts until four days after," she added.
The holiday season poses new risks and there have been more than 60 cases of measles reported in the last two months in London.
In 2014, two infected people came here from the Philippines and another from Japan. Last year, another case originated in Indonesia.
How vaccination works - Babies are given the first dose of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine at the age of 12 months.
A second dose is given in school at age four to five years. Anyone born before 1978 probably had measles as a child and is immune.
An unfounded scare around the MMR vaccine in the late 1990s led to many parents not vaccinating their children.
It means there are pockets of young people who are not protected.
They can still get the two doses of the vaccine a month apart to ensure they do not catch the illness.