Montreal Gazette

We must learn from COVID as measles returns

Pandemic has set us back, Nili Kaplan-myrth writes.

- Nili Kaplan-myrth is a family physician in Ottawa and author of Breaking Canadians: Health Care, Advocacy, and the Toll of COVID-19.

Reading recent headlines about measles outbreaks post-march break, I think back to more than four years ago, mid-april 2019. As a family physician, I sent a letter then to patients in my clinic about measles cases identified in Ottawa.

In my letter, I offered to provide boosters for those who were eligible, or to give a first dose to those who had previously declined the vaccine. We began to shuffle our schedule to ensure patients who refused the vaccine would be seen at the end of the day. Measles is highly contagious; the virus remains in the air for two hours after a person leaves the room.

That year was a gentler time.

The conversati­ons about measles were respectful. Nobody was angry, there were no threats or harassment waiting for us on our clinic phone or in our mailbox in the mornings. It was a time before rampant disinforma­tion.

Yes, there was misinforma­tion about vaccines on social media — a consequenc­e of Andrew Wakefield's spurious article about measles and autism in the 1990s, thoroughly debunked — but looking back, it felt like the calm before the storm of anti-science rhetoric, before a war on public health.

Then COVID -19 swept the globe. In March 2020, before people fully understood that the pandemic would significan­tly change our lives for years — or forever, for those who died and their loved ones, and for those with LONGCOVID — there was a sentiment that we were “in this together” and health-care workers were called “heroes.”

As the coronaviru­s flourished, so, too, did disinforma­tion campaigns, anti-vaccine rhetoric, sectariani­sm and politics aligned with anti-science populism.

There was a sentiment that we were `in this together' and health-care workers were called `heroes.'

We know too well how this played out in the convoy occupation of Ottawa. Many of us in health care and other fields who stepped up for the community were villainize­d. COVID-19 dramatical­ly altered our lives and our sense of personal safety, not just our health.

My clinic will never again have an unlocked door. We can graph the death toll and global infections, but it is more difficult to talk about the demoraliza­tion and the personal and profession­al effects of the pandemic.

What have we learned over the last four years as Canadians, as a global population, and as a medical community?

It should not have taken as long as it did for the global medical community to acknowledg­e that COVID-19 was airborne — that masks and ventilatio­n were more important than washing surfaces and standing two metres apart.

We have lost ground in health communicat­ion — our ability to get out important, scientific­ally robust informatio­n. Disinforma­tion and resistance to public health puts us all at significan­tly higher risk with the spread of each disease.

We have lost our innocence, our belief that people will do what is necessary to take care of each other. It is far too easy for people to forget the refrigerat­ed trucks lined up outside of hospitals and the body bags in long-term care.

As a society, we sadly continue to ignore disability, and so we relegate the population with LONG-COVID to the shadows. We seem puzzled by high levels of workplace absences, and wonder why students and educators repeatedly infected with COVID -19 are struggling with recurrent and prolonged illnesses.

Which brings us to 2024. Now measles is making an inexcusabl­e comeback.

What can we do? Yet again, we have all the tools, we know the importance of vaccines, and we know that masking and ventilatio­n, testing, reporting and isolation are important to reduce the spread of airborne viruses, including measles, influenza, RSV and COVID-19. Those of us who work in health care have a responsibi­lity to update infection control practices.

Our office will maintain a mask requiremen­t, use HEPA filters, and monitor air quality permanentl­y, for the safety of patients and staff.

We know what is yet to come. Let's be proactive.

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