Measles. Wasn’t it eliminated in the US years ago? Why are there reports of new cases every day? Are you at risk?
It’s always best to talk to your primary care provider, but here’s a summary of what you should know about this unusual virus.
What is it?
Most of us know measles for the bumpy, red rash that covers a person’s body. But, measles is actually a highly contagious respiratory virus. It first infects the mucous membranes and causes a fever, runny nose, sore throat, cough and red, watery eyes. A few days later, white spots can appear in the patient’s mouth.
Then comes the rash. The clusters of red spots or bumps usually start on the face, behind the ears or near the hairline. The rash spreads from head to toe – first the face, then arms and abdomen, then legs and feet. And, a patient’s fever often spikes to 104°F or more. The high fever drops a few days later and the rash starts to fade (also from head to toe).
About 10% of people infected with measles will develop further complications, including:
- Ear infections
- Pneumonia (leading cause of measles related death among kids)
- Encephalitis (swelling of the brain) which could lead to seizures, deafness or brain damage
Severe complications require hospitalization and can lead to death.
How does measles spread?
Measles is an airborne virus. When a person infected with measles coughs or sneezes, infected droplets are released into the air and onto surfaces – where it can survive for up to two hours.
People who breathe contaminated air or touch a contaminated surface and then touch their own eyes, nose or mouth can become infected. It generally takes 10-12 days for symptoms to appear. People with measles are contagious for four days before and four days after the rash begins.
Who’s at risk?
- People who aren’t vaccinated – including infants who aren’t old enough yet
- People with weakened immune systems
- Pregnant women
According to the Centers for Disease Control: “Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”
Wasn’t measles eliminated in the US?
An effective measles vaccine was developed in 1968 – and dramatically reduced the number of cases. When doctors began recommending a second dose of the vaccine, cases dropped even further.
In 2000, there was no continuous measles transmission for more than 12 months, so measles was deemed “eliminated” in the United States. However, measles still exists around the world. And, a rise in international travel and a decrease in the immunization rate nationally have brought an increase in cases in the US in recent years.
In 2014, there were 644 reported cases of measles in the US – the most in more than a decade. Of those cases, 382 were traced to one person, an Amish missionary who introduced the virus to his unvaccinated community after returning from the Philippines.
Last month alone, 102 cases of measles were reported nationwide – including four cases in Washington. Two of the local cases are attributed to the theme park outbreak in California, one was an unvaccinated traveler from Brazil and one an infant in King County.
How to protect yourself and your family
The number-one way to avoid measles is to get vaccinated.
Children should get two doses of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine – the first when they’re 12-15 months old. The second is usually given between the ages of 4 and 6, but that’s a recommendation only. A child can receive the second dose at any age, as long as it happens at least 28 days after the first dose.
How effective is the MMR vaccine? A single dose provides 93% protection. A second dose means you’re 97% protected.
Is the vaccine safe? Yes. Side effects from the vaccine are rare: about 10% of folks will develop a fever and one in 1 million will experience a severe reaction. Don’t be concerned that a childhood vaccination could cause autism. There is no relationship between vaccines and autism. But, there is a risk your child could die from measles.
If you’re not sure you received the MMR vaccine as a child or if you wonder if you’re as protected as possible, talk to your primary care provider. But, here are some general guidelines:
- For adults – a blood test can indicate whether or not you’re already immune
- You probably don’t need a vaccine if you were born before 1957
- If you've already had two doses of the vaccine, you’re as protected as you can be
If you haven’t had two doses of the MMR vaccine, you should get a second if:
- You’re a college student
- You work in a medical facility
- You travel internationally or are going on a cruise
- You are a woman of childbearing age
Providence is here for you
Do you have more questions about measles, immunizations or other health concerns? Your medical team at Providence Medical Group is here to help. Don’t have a primary care provider? Use our online tools to search for a provider or clinic in your neighborhood.
- CDC publication: Why get vaccinated?