News & Events

Measles warning for Canterbury: Third case confirmed

9 February 2018

Updated: 12th February 2018

Another case of measles has been confirmed in Canterbury with public health officials urging the community to be extra vigilant, and get vaccinated.

An 18 year-old woman is the third person in a fortnight to be diagnosed with the highly contagious virus.

Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Alistair Humphrey says the woman visited Christchurch Hospital’s Emergency Department on Saturday 10th February 2018 and again on Sunday 11th February 2018.

Patients and visitors who are not fully vaccinated with MMR and were in the waiting room any time at the weekend after 10am on Saturday 11th February are being urged to contact their own General Practice team and get vaccinated immediately.

Chest of a young person showing distinctive measles spots.

Investigations show the 18 year-old also attended a college for two days last week, and fellow attendees have been notified. Community and Public Health is praising the college’s record keeping which has enabled them to swiftly identify unvaccinated individuals who may have come into contact with the virus.

Investigations show the first case and the most recent case happened to be in the hospital’s Emergency Department at the same time late last month, and Dr Humphrey says this shows just how infectious the virus is.

“The measles virus spreads easily from person to person through the air, via breathing, coughing and sneezing. It starts with fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and sore throat. This is followed by a rash that spreads over the body. Complications include pneumonia, inflammation of the brain and damage to the eyes.

It can take up to 3 weeks for symptoms to appear, and people are being urged to phone their own family doctor/general practice team 24/7 for if they are concerned.

Dr Humphrey says it’s important people with symptoms don’t visit GP rooms or after-hours clinic – you should phone first for advice, as the disease can be spread in waiting rooms.

“Measles cannot be treated once you get it so the only way to protect yourself is to be fully vaccinated,” says Dr Humphrey. “People are only considered immune if they have received two doses of MMR vaccine and/or have had a measles illness previously and/or were born before 1969.”

Cantabrians are warned to be vigilant for measles

Community and Public Health is investigating a second case of measles in Christchurch. An 11-year-old child was the second case of measles and is now recovering at home after contracting the virus in a general practice waiting room.

Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Alistair Humphrey, says the child contracted measles after coming into contact with a 30-year-old man who contracted the virus overseas. The man has now recovered from the virus.

“These are the first cases of measles in Canterbury since May 2017. Community and Public Health staff are now working to contain any potential spread.”

Unvaccinated students at the school and at a church the child attended have been sent directives to remain at home for the rest of this week.

Dr Humphrey says the re-emergence of the virus is a timely reminder to everyone in our community to ensure that they are fully immunised.

“The scheduled vaccinations are free from your general practice and some pharmacies. Measles is a very serious illness and we need to work together to ensure the South Island returns to its measles-free status.”

Fast facts about measles​

  • Measles is highly contagious. If one person has it, 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.
  • It can take up to 3 weeks for symptoms to appear. You should phone your family doctor or general practice team 24/7 for care around the clock if you are concerned. A nurse will answer the call after-hours and advise what to do and where to go if you need to be seen.
  • Measles cannot be treated once you get it so the only way to protect yourself is to be fully vaccinated. People are only considered immune if they have received two doses of MMR vaccine and/or have had a measles illness previously and/or were born before 1969.
  • Adults born before 1969 are considered immune to measles. This is because the virus is so infectious and a measles vaccine was not available in New Zealand until 1969.


Source: Canterbury DHB media release (9th February 2018).

Check for health warnings before going near waterways

21 December 2017

Swimming Water QualityRecreational water users are being reminded to avoid contact with some Canterbury and South Canterbury waterways.

Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Ramon Pink says health warnings remain in place where there’s potentially toxic algae (cyanobacteria) in a number of areas around the regions.

“Make sure you check the health warnings for toxic algae before going near any waterways. And if in doubt, keep out.” Dr Humphrey says.

Harmful effects of toxic algae on humans and animals

Algal blooms can produce toxins harmful to humans and animals. People should avoid contact with the water where algal blooms are present until further notice. The algae is particularly dangerous for dogs.

“Animals that show signs of illness after coming into contact with toxic algae should be taken to a vet immediately. Symptoms of cyanobacteria poisoning in dogs include panting, lethargy, muscle tremors, twitching and convulsions – which usually occur within 30 minutes of exposure.”

Dr Pink says people who come into contact with toxic algae can also experience unpleasant symptoms. “Exposure may cause skin rashes, nausea, stomach cramps, tingling and numbness around the mouth and fingertips. If you experience any of these symptoms visit your doctor immediately and please let your doctor know if you have had contact with the water,” Dr Pink says.

People should never drink water from a waterway where a health warning is in place and they should also avoid eating fish and shellfish taken from areas where warnings are in place. “Boiling the water does not remove the toxin. If fish are eaten, remove the gut and liver and wash in clean water.”

Pets should be taken to a vet immediately if they are showing signs of illness after coming into contact with algal mats or affected waterways.

Facts about cyanobacteria

  • The algae occur naturally but can increase rapidly during warmer months.
  • Avoid all contact if the water is cloudy, discoloured, or has small globules suspended in it.
  • Some cyanobacteria also appear as dark brown/black mats attached to rocks along a riverbed, and have a strong musty smell.
  • Not all cyanobacteria blooms are visible to the naked eye and toxins can persist after the blooms disappear.
  • Cyanobacteria concentrations can change quickly with changing environmental conditions such as wind.
  • Avoid contact with the water if a health warning is in place.

Source: Canterbury District Health Board media release (21st December 2017).

National outbreak of whooping cough declared

1 December 2017

The Ministry of Heath has declared a national outbreak of whooping cough, as a total of 1,315 cases have been reported since the beginning of 2017.

“Babies under one year old are most vulnerable to the disease and often catch it from older siblings, their parents or family members and friends,” said Ministry of Health Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay.

“The best way to protect babies is for pregnant women to get their free immunisation against whooping cough between 28 and 38 weeks of pregnancy, and take their baby for their free immunisations when they’re six weeks, three months and five months old.”  Any siblings should also be up-to-date with their immunisations – older children receive free boosters at four and eleven years of age.  If people are unsure whether they or their children have been immunised, they can talk to their health practitioner, doctor or nurse.

“On time immunisation is vitally important,” says Dr McElnay. “Babies are vulnerable for longer, if immunisation is delayed.”

When pregnant women are vaccinated, they pass their immunity on to their babies, protecting them until they are able to be immunised at six weeks of age. The Ministry has asked midwives and general practices to work together to ensure that pregnant women are referred to general practices for immunisation.

The Ministry of Health is encouraging people to be extra vigilant as they gather for Christmas and New Year celebrations, in order to protect young babies from whooping cough.

“Anyone with coughs should be especially careful if they are likely to come in to contact with babies. Most adults don’t realise they have whooping cough, but it is incredibly contagious.”

Whooping cough is less serious in adults, but is harder to prevent for adults as immunity wears off over time.

Outbreaks of the disease occur every 3 to 5 years. New Zealand’s most recent national outbreak spanned from August 2011 to December 2013, with about 11,000 cases notified. A total of 3 deaths in babies and young children occurred during this period, with hundreds needing hospital treatment.

Adapted from: Ministry of Health media release (30th November 2017).

Health risks of nitrates in drinking water

19 October 2017

Water pouring from a tap into a glass.Nitrate (NO3) is a compound that is formed when nitrogen combines with oxygen. Sometimes high amounts of nitrate get into drinking water. Typical sources of nitrate include:

  • fertilisers,
  • animal wastes, particularly in areas of intensified farming,
  • unreticulated sewage disposal systems, and
  • industrial and food processing waste.

Nitrate is highly soluble in water, making it readily transported through the soil to groundwater.

Negative health effects of nitrates in drinking water

High levels of nitrate can pose a risk to babies less than six months who are formula fed and the unborn foetus of pregnant women. Adults with specific rare metabolic disorders may also be at risk.

Nitrate is converted into nitrite by bacteria in the gut. This nitrite combines with foetal haemoglobin in the foetus or infant less than 6 months old, preventing oxygen from binding and being distributed around the body. Symptoms include blueness around the mouth, hands and feet – hence the name ‘blue baby’ syndrome. In severe cases it can affect breathing and be life-threatening.

Fully breastfed infants are not affected as nitrites do not enter the breast-milk. Very few cases of ‘blue baby’ syndrome have been reported in New Zealand, though nitrates in groundwater have been rising in the last twenty years.

Nitrate levels in your drinking water

Council water supplies in Canterbury currently have safe nitrate levels.

Many rural drinking water bores in Canterbury are at risk of elevated nitrate levels. Some private bores exceeding the recommended safe level of nitrates. Environment Canterbury (ECan) has produced maps identifying where nitrate levels in drinking water may be a concern – last updated in 2015.

The maps identify green, yellow and red areas:

  • Green areas are where nitrate concentrations in groundwater are always below the Maximum Acceptable Level (MAV) and the water is therefore safe to drink.
  • Red areas are where nitrate concentrations in groundwater are above the MAV most or all of the time. Alternative water sources should be used for drinking in these areas.
  • Yellow areas are where it is not known if a sample collected from a well will have nitrate concentrations exceeding the MAV. Testing is recommended in these areas.

Get your bore water tested for nitrates

The drinking water consumed by pregnant women, or formula fed babies under 6 months coming from a private bore in a medium to high risk area should be tested for nitrates.

Testing is the only way to detect nitrate as it is tasteless, odourless and colourless. There are several laboratories that are able to test for nitrate.

Drinking Water Standards for New Zealand set a Maximum Acceptable Level (MAV) of 50mg/L for nitrate, which is equivalent to 11.3mg/l nitrate-nitrogen. Some laboratories report nitrate levels whereas other report nitrate-nitrogen. Ensure that you are aware which they are reporting if you are getting your water tested.

What do if your drinking water has high nitrate levels

If tests show that nitrate levels are above or close to the MAV then pregnant women and formula-fed infants less than 6 months should use an alternative water source for drinking or making up formula.

If tests reveal that nitrate levels are above half the MAV then the water is safe to drink. However the water should be tested monthly to ensure that it does not increase over the MAV.

Nitrate levels do vary over the year. Often results are highest in spring (following rain and snow melt). High nitrate levels have been found in late summer in areas where there is extensive irrigation.

October is the start of Legionnaires’ season

3 October 2017

Man with mask potting plants in soil.

It’s gardening season so it’s time to reach for the spade, the wheelbarrow, the gloves, and the face mask!

Canterbury has the country’s highest incidence rates of potentially-fatal Legionnaire’s disease, while New Zealand has the highest reported incidence of the disease in the world.

Legionnaire’s disease causes a form of pneumonia. Contact with compost and potting mix is a main contributor as that’s where the Legionella longbeachae bacteria can lurk.

Gardeners are encouraged to wear a mask to prevent inhaling the dust. Even using unwashed hands to remove a mask can be enough to become infected.

“It’s a timely reminder to our community that hand washing immediately after gardening is very important in protecting against Legionnaire’s disease,” says Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Ramon Pink. “Reducing the risk of becoming infected is vital as more of us get out into our gardens with the longer days and warmer weather”.

A recent CDHB-funded study of the disease by University of Otago researchers found that gardeners washing their hands immediately after use protected against the disease, by minimising exposure of the bacteria to the face. The report also recommends long term smokers and those with cardiac or respiratory conditions take particular care of their hygiene during and after gardening.

271 cases have been notified nationwide in the last 12 months – 49 of those in Canterbury. 30 percent of patients hospitalised with the disease require time in the intensive care unit.

Five simple steps to avoid Legionnaire’s disease from potting mix or compost

It is important that gardeners follow these five simple steps to avoid catching Legionnaires’ disease from potting mix or compost:

  1. Open potting mix bags carefully using scissors, rather than ripping them.
  2. Wear a disposable face mask and gloves and open the bag away from your face.
  3. Do your potting in a well-ventilated area outside.
  4. Dampen down the potting mix or compost with a sprinkle of water to stop the bacteria from becoming airborne.
  5. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling potting mix and doing any gardening.

Symptoms of Legionnaire’s disease to look out for

Symptoms of the disease may include:

  • dry coughing
  • high fever
  • chills
  • diarrhoea
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pains
  • headaches
  • excessive sweating
  • nausea
  • vomiting, and
  • abdominal pain.

Anyone who gets these symptoms should see their general practice team immediately, and let them know they have been handling potting mix or compost recently.

Source: Canterbury DHB media release (3rd October 2017).

Boil water notices still in place for many Kaikoura residents

18 August 2017

Last updated: 11th December 2017

People in the Kaikoura and Hurunui Districts are being reminded that boil water notices remain in place at several locations – over a year on from the November 2016 earthquake.

Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Alistair Humphrey says boil water notices are in place at water supplies in the Kaikoura and Hurunui Districts.

“These warnings remain in place because these supplies are not secure and remain at risk of bacterial contamination. Drinking the water without boiling it first could make you very sick,” says Dr Humphrey.

The boil water notice applies to water used for:

  • drinking,
  • cooking and food preparation,
  • washing dishes,
  • brushing teeth, and
  • making ice.

People living in or visiting the following areas need to boil their water:

  • Kaikoura Suburban – approximately 25 residents.
  • East Coast Rural – approximately 150 residents.

Several other rural Hurunui water supplies remain on a permanent boil water notice:

  • Blythe Rural water – approximately 40 residents.
  • Hurunui No 1 Rural water – approximately 680 residents.
  • Kaiwara Rural water – approximately 130 residents.
  • Lower Waitohi Rural water – approximately 315 residents.
  • Parnassus Rural water – approximately 210 residents.
  • Peaks Rural water – approximately 85 residents.
  • Waiau Rural water – approximately 500 residents.

Dr Humphrey is also reminding people to test their own private water supplies quarterly, as well as after heavy rainfall, and following any significant earthquakes.

Other ways to prevent gastro bugs in the Kaikoura region

Kaikoura residents should remain vigilant in preventing gastro bugs, with the risk from damaged water infrastructure still affecting many in the district.

People are also encouraged wash their hands and keep out of any contaminated waterways.

Dr Humphrey says that everyone should always remain vigilant about hand washing too. “It’s important to wash your hands thoroughly to prevent gastro infections such as Norovirus, which can spread quickly across a community.”

Dr Humphrey also warns people to not swim, surf or consume seafood and shellfish collected in the area where Lyell Creek discharges into the ocean.

“Advice from the Kaikoura District Council on the state of wastewater infrastructure indicates people should stay away from the Lyell Creek area until further notice.”

Source: Canterbury District Health Board media releases (8th February, 11th May and 15th June 2017) and Kaikoura and Hurunui District Council websites.

Page last updated: 23/02/2016

Copyright © 2018, Community & Public Health, Web design, development in Christchurch by Wired