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File photo: A child reacts to a Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccination (MMR) as his father comforts him in 2002.
254 cases; disease leapfrogged from Europe

Montreal - Quebecers travelling to Europe this summer should make sure their immunizations are up to date, as France battles a measles epidemic, health officials warned Monday.

An outbreak of measles - a highly contagious respiratory disease that's jumped here from Europe - has affected 254 people in Quebec, and officials expect more as the virus spreads among people who have not been vaccinated.

Waves of the vaccine-preventable disease have been reported in the United States, England, Wales and France. The disease's rise is often cited as a legacy of a now-discredited study by a British autism guru who scared parents from immunization.

It's not known whether vaccine rates in Quebec are decreasing as the province does not keep a formal register. But increasingly, doctors are spending more time with parents answering questions about immunization fears, said Montreal pediatrician Richard Haber, director of the pediatric consultation centre of the Montreal Children's Hospital. Controversies over measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines have eroded public confidence in vaccination and threaten herd immunity, he said.

"There's no question that the Wakefield nonsense - which was thoroughly debunked - has unnerved people," Haber said, referring to Andrew Wakefield, whose medical licence revoked in Britain because of a faulty 1998 study linking vaccines to autism. There is no link.

Initial cases in Quebec were reported in people who had returned from vacation in France, where at least 5,000 people have become ill and six have died since January.

The virus is spreading locally, Poirier warned. Of 208 cases reported in Quebec since May 1, Montreal has five and Quebec City has 26. The province usually records about two cases a year. About 95 per cent of the population has to be immunized to provide "herd protection" to the rest. In France, the vaccine rate is about 60 per cent.