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Measles outbreak in Okinawa ahead of 'Golden Week' holidays prompts health warnings

A patient receives a measles vaccination in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward on April 22, 2018. (Mainichi)

Popular vacation spot Okinawa Prefecture is suffering an outbreak of the highly contagious measles virus ahead of the "Golden Week" holiday period and health authorities are urging the public to get vaccinated.

The National Institute of Infectious Diseases announced on April 24 that there were 67 measles patients this year nationwide as of April 18, 46 of which were confirmed in Okinawa Prefecture. It is thought that the virus may have entered Japan via travelers coming from Taiwan. According to the Okinawa Prefectural Government, as of April 23 the number of cases there had risen to 70.

A teenage boy returning to Aichi Prefecture from a trip to Okinawa was diagnosed with measles on April 11, and as of April 24, a total of four people had been reported infected with the virus at the two medical institutions where he was examined in what appeared to be an in-hospital infection -- prompting warnings for at-risk groups to postpone their trips. Among those infected are a hospital staff member and a 1-year-old baby girl.

The measles virus can be transmitted via air, and is more contagious than influenza that can be passed on by airborne moisture from things like sneezing. Over 90 percent of individuals with no immunity to the virus are said to develop measles once they are infected with the virus, making it extremely contagious. There is a danger of the virus spreading quickly via airports, train stations, event venues, medical institutions and other areas where a large number of people gather. In 2016, many workers and travelers were infected at Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture, and patients emerged all over Japan.

Ten to 12 days following exposure, patients run a fever and start coughing before the rash and high fever develops. The virus can be deadly if the symptoms worsen. The best way to prevent infection is to receive the measles and rubella (MR) shot. In Japan, infants can get the vaccine for free, but there are also people who reach adulthood without ever being inoculated.

Ahead of the long Golden Week holidays, the Okinawa Prefectural Government has posted a list of questions and answers for tourists on the prefectural website. The prefecture recommends checking vaccination records and if the number of boosters is not sufficient, to get the shot again before heading to Okinawa. Children aged 1 and younger and pregnant women who have not received the vaccine twice and are at risk of miscarriages or premature births are advised to postpone their trips all together for safety reasons and visit the islands once the situation has improved.

At Navitas Clinic in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, since the outbreak of the virus was announced, the number of people requesting vaccinations has ballooned to 10 people per day -- close to five times the normal amount. The clinic says that there are people traveling to Okinawa or husbands worried about their pregnant wives becoming infected.

"The most effective way to prevent infection is to get vaccinated," said clinic director and physician Eiji Kusumi. "In order to protect pregnant women and other susceptible groups in society, I would like everyone to get vaccinated, not just travelers."

(Japanese original by Takeshi Noda and Toshiyasu Kawachi, Medical Welfare Department)

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