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10 Things Parents Should Know About Measles

A woman with short brown hair holds a young girl.

Though measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, it is not simply a problem of the past. The U.S. has seen increasing numbers of measles cases since 2011 due to decreasing vaccination rates. The decrease in vaccination rates is small, but even a minor change in coverage can lead to outbreaks because measles is highly contagious. According to the health department, there were 187 cases in the U.S. in 2013, 667 in 2014 and 189 in 2015, including one case in Colorado in 2015 and one in 2016.

What should you do to keep your family safe from this disease? These answers to 11 frequently asked questions about measles are a good place to start.

1. What is measles?

Measles, also called rubeola, is a highly contagious respiratory infection that's caused by a virus. Measles starts with a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes, sore throat and sensitivity to light, and is followed by a rash that spreads all over the body. Measles can be serious, especially for young children.

Even in previously healthy children measles can cause complications, including ear infections (1 in 10), pneumonia (up to 1 in 20), encephalitis or swelling of the brain (about 1 in 1,000) and death (1-3 in 1,000 in countries like the U.S., but much higher in developing countries). Additionally, measles can cause severe complications in pregnant women. 

2. How is it spread?

Measles is spread through the air from coughs or sneezes. It is one of the most contagious diseases on the planet. In fact, 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. A person who is not immune to the virus can catch measles from someone with measles even in large spaces, like gymnasiums, grocery stores and movie theaters.

People who have measles can spread the virus to others from four days before the rash to four days after the rash appears. The virus can live on infected surfaces and in airspaces for up to two hours. 

3. How can I protect my child from measles?

Measles can be prevented with the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine. The CDC recommends that all children receive two doses of MMR vaccine beginning at 12-15 months of age with a booster dose between 4 and 6 years of age. The vaccine takes about 10 days to two weeks to provide protection.

For questions on how to get your child the MMR vaccine, please contact your child’s health care provider or call the ParentSmart Healthline: 720-777-0123.

4. Is the measles vaccine safe?

Yes. Most people who get the measles vaccine do not experience side effects, although mild problems such as fever, pain at the injection site or rash can occur. The risk of serious allergic reaction from MMR vaccine is very rare, about 1 in 1,000,000.

5. Is it too late to get my child immunized?

It’s never too late to get vaccinated. Learn more by watching the video below.

6. Hasn’t measles been eliminated from the U.S.?

Since the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, ongoing measles transmission was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. Before widespread vaccination, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths worldwide each year.

Measles can still be brought to the U.S. by travelers from any country where the disease still has not been eliminated or where outbreaks are occurring. We saw few cases in the U.S. until about 2011, but since then, due to slightly lower vaccination rates, we have seen increasing numbers of measles cases, with more cases in 2014 than any year since 1994.

Measles has remained common in many developing countries, and more than 20 million people are affected by measles each year.

8. Should I worry about my child contracting measles?

If your child is 1-year-old or older and is following the recommended vaccine schedule, it is very unlikely he or she will get measles, even if exposed. The vaccine is effective in 95-99% of people.

If your child is too young to be vaccinated (less than 12 months of age), or cannot be vaccinated because of a weakened immune system, it is important that those who care for and have close contact with them are vaccinated. Babies younger than 12 months and people who have weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable to complications from measles.

If you are traveling outside the country, please refer to the CDC’s travel immunization recommendations.

9. Do adults need to get vaccinated?

The CDC recommends that adults born after 1957 get the MMR vaccine. If you aren’t sure whether you’ve been vaccinated, you can get a booster dose or check your antibody levels with a titer blood test. Talk with your health care provider to decide which is best for you.

10. How do I know if my child’s school or day care facility is protected?

A new law in Colorado requires schools and licensed child care facilities to disclose their immunization and vaccine exemption rates. That means that anyone – including parents – can simply call and ask for the facility-wide rates. Learn more at

11. What can I do to speak up for kids?

We advocate on behalf of kids in the public policy arena, making sure that their needs and concerns are heard when important decisions are made. We have many ways that you can get involved and participate. Join the Children’s Hospital Colorado Child Health Champions and the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition to receive action alerts and learn how you can be a voice for Colorado kids!

For questions about measles or your child’s health, please contact your child’s health care provider or call the ParentSmart Healthline: 720-777-0123.

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