What You Need to Know About Measles

A recent measles outbreak at Disneyland in Anaheim, California has hit close to home, especially as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports cases of the disease in 14 other states, including Michigan. Though it hasn’t been lab proven, a student at Clay High School was recently suspected of having measles, requiring all students and staff in the Oregon School District to get vaccinated or stay home from school.

According to Ziad Jaara, MD, a pediatrician at the ProMedica Center for Health Services – Pediatric Clinic, this news should be a red flag for individuals who haven’t been properly immunized.

“This measles outbreak should serve as a wake-up call, and it could continue to ‘smolder’ if not enough people get vaccinated,” Dr. Jaara warns.

In order to minimize you and your family’s exposure to the disease, Dr. Jaara shares important information you need to know about measles.

Measles is a contagious, airborne virus. Measles is a communicable disease, meaning it spreads from person to person. The virus is spread by the air through sneezing and coughing. People with measles can pass the disease along to others four days before the rash appears (or before they know they have measles) through four days after the rash begins.

Measles begins with flu-like symptoms. Measles starts with a fever, runny nose, cough, loss of appetite, and red, watery eyes for about four days. These symptoms may feel similar to the common flu. However, people with measles will begin to develop a rash a few days after the initial symptoms, which first appears on the face and neck and then spreads to the rest of the body, lasting about three to five days.

Dr. Jaara pinpoints another identifying symptom of measles known as Koplik spots.

“Two or three days after symptoms begin, tiny white spots called Koplik spots may appear inside the mouth,” Dr. Jaara says. “These spots are considered pathognomonic (characteristic) for measles. Koplik spots occur one to two days before the measles rash appears to one to two days afterward. They appear as tiny white spots on the bright red background of the inner lining of the cheeks and back of the lips.”

Some groups are considered more at-risk. While many people recover quickly (one to two weeks) from measles, the World Health Organization reports that measles remains one of the leading causes of death among young children, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.

Dr. Jaara shares that the following groups are at higher risk of developing complications from measles:

  • Infants and children under the age of 5
  • Adults over the age of 20
  • Pregnant women
  • People with compromised immune systems from illnesses such as leukemia and HIV infection

Measles is widely known as the most serious of all childhood rash/fever illnesses. It can lead to ear infection, pneumonia, seizures, brain damage and even death.

“Measles is extremely contagious, particularly to pregnant women, people with weak immune systems and babies who are too young to receive the shot,” Dr. Jaara says. “As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia. About one child out of every 1,000 children who gets measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which can lead to convulsions and leave the child deaf or disabled. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.”

Vaccines are your best bet for protection. If you’ve already been vaccinated, there’s no need to panic. Getting vaccinated is an effectively proven way to avoid the disease. Do you remember receiving or hearing about the MMR vaccine as a child? This vaccine stands for measles, mumps and rubella. There is also the MMRV vaccine, which protects for measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (chickenpox), however, it is not licensed for people over the age of 12.

“One dose of MMR vaccine is approximately 93 percent effective at preventing measles,” says Dr. Jaara. “ Two doses are approximately 97 percent effective. Between two to three percent of healthy people do not develop full measles immunity after getting the vaccine.”

Measles vaccine recommendations for kids

The CDC recommends children receive two doses of MMR. The first should be administered between 12-15 months of age, and the second vaccine between 4-6 years of age. Parents traveling internationally with infants younger than 1 year old should vaccinate their child, though this will not count toward their routine series.

Measles vaccine recommendations for adults

Some adults should get their MMR vaccines. This generally includes anyone 18 years or older who was born after 1957, unless they can show that they have either been vaccinated or had all three diseases. Two doses of the vaccine are recommended for adults who are at higher risk, such as: College students, healthcare or hospital employees, international travelers, and women of childbearing age.

“A with any virus, good personal hygiene is also important to help prevent the spread of disease,” Dr. Jaara says. “This includes washing your hands regularly, disposing used tissues, and not sharing eating utensils or drinks. The best prevention, however, is vaccination.”

So what’s the bottom line about measles epidemics?

“People mistakenly think that because the disease is rare, it’s not necessary to be immunized. But individuals who travel internationally or visit from a foreign country can unknowingly bring measles into the U.S.,” says Dr. Jaara. “It is important to protect yourself, your children, and your community by staying current on your vaccinations.”

Anyone who suspects they or their children have been exposed to measles, or are showing symptoms, should contact their primary care physician.