Dr. Khan deploys to Tonga to fight measles outbreak

by Kara Stephens, College of Public Health | January 07, 2020

Image with caption: Ali S. Khan, M.D., M.P.H.

Ali S. Khan, M.D., M.P.H.

Ali S. Khan, M.D., M.P.H., dean of the UNMC College of Public Health, headed to the airport Christmas Eve and spent his holiday supporting the World Health Organization (WHO) measles outbreak response in Tonga.

The 2019 Tonga measles outbreak began in October after a squad of Tongan rugby players came back from New Zealand. As of Dec. 15, there had been 564 cases of measles reported, and no deaths.

Measles has been spreading throughout the Pacific region, with outbreaks in Tonga, Fiji, the Philippines and New Zealand. Samoa, Tonga and Fiji have all declared states of emergency to tackle their 2019 measles outbreaks.

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease and remains a leading cause of morbidity and mortality among young children globally, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine. One person with it can infect 12 to 18 others.

A resurgence of measles cases has been seen in all WHO regions since 2017. In the Asia Pacific Region, outbreaks of measles have been reported from countries where measles has previously been eliminated (including Australia, Cambodia, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea) and in endemic countries with high incidence rates (including Lao PDR, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam).

Samoa has particularly been hard hit. In 2013, 90 percent of infants in Samoa were receiving the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine around the time they turned a year old. But the rate gradually declined in the years that followed.

In 2018, the immunization rate bottomed out at about 30 percent, on a par with some of the poorest countries in Africa. That year, the country's faith in vaccination was shaken after two infants who had received the vaccine died -- a tragedy that was later attributed to a medical mistake. Nurses had inadvertently mixed a muscle relaxant into the vaccine instead of sterile water. After an introduction of measles from New Zealand, the island has experienced 5,612 cases and 81 deaths.

Since joining UNMC, Dr. Khan was deployed three times by the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), twice to Sierra Leone in 2015 to help eradicate the Ebola virus in that country and once to Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, to help fight an outbreak of diphtheria.

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