Ten of these cases are linked to one family who chose not to be vaccinated for religious reasons. Almost all of the 17 people were not vaccinated.
“This is not normal,” said Dr Chika Asomugha, a senior medical adviser for public health programmes, at the department.
“In Gauteng, even one case of confirmed measles should wake us up. We only had 11 cases over the past year. Now we have 17 in a month.”
Nearly all of the cases are in Joburg, clustering in Lenasia South and Houghton, although three cases were confirmed outside of the city – two in Ekurhuleni and one in Tshwane.
Five of the patients are under five, one is aged 45, and the remainder are between five and 15.
Dr Melinda Suchard head of the Centre for Vaccines and Immunology at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said more than three cases in one district in a month warranted investigation, “so 17 in one month is definitely exceptional”.
In response to the outbreak, the department has embarked on a mass vaccination campaign at schools and crèches.
When the first patients were identified, the department sought out everyone who had been in contact with those that took ill, and vaccinated them – though many had already been infected.
Now that the disease has spread to 17 people, Asomugha said just vaccinating the contacts of those infected was not sufficient. This was why the department was now implementing its widespread vaccination campaign.
All children between six months and 59 months (about five years) will be vaccinated. In Joburg, all children aged between six months and 15 years will be vaccinated.
A similar outbreak in the Western Cape over the first three months of this year, when 35 people were diagnosed with measles, was stopped by a provincial vaccination campaign similar to the one Gauteng is embarking on, according to Suchard.
A severe outbreak between 2009 and 2011 in South Africa included more than 18000 confirmed cases, and led to multiple deaths.
The emergency vaccination campaign began this past Tuesday and will end on May 26. Health officials will visit every school and crèche, and pupils will be offered vaccinations after their parents have signed consent forms.
Even if children are already vaccinated, the inoculation is not 100% effective, and the department hopes a second vaccination will protect them further.
The department emphasised it did not force vaccinations, and parental consent was required.
As so many of the reported cases were linked to the one family that refused vaccinations for religious grounds, Asomugha said promoting education about the safety and necessity of vaccination was a “matter of life and death”.
“We need to persuade people that vaccines are safe, and dispel misconceptions about negative side effects,” he said.
Last year, a study in the SA Medical Journal, A profile of anti-vaccination lobbying on the South African internet, 2011-2013, found South Africans were creating web pages or blogs for anti-vaccination lobbying.
These web pages claimed that vaccines were ineffective and that vaccination was profit driven. Christine Hewlett, who founded Vaccine Awareness SA, previously told the Saturday Star that she believed the number of people who refused vaccines was “very small but there is a growing awareness. They may not all refuse vaccines, but they’re certainly questioning vaccines”.
“Many of these anti-vaccination lobbyists are parents so it’s possible a growing number of young South Africans parents are using a search engine to find information about vaccination and are encountering misinformation instead,” said the study. – Additional reporting by Sheree Bega