Children's Hospital Colorado

10 Things Parents Should Know About Measles

Though measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, it is not simply a disease of the past. The U.S. has seen increasing numbers of measles cases since 2011 due to an increase in unvaccinated travelers who get measles abroad and bring the disease to the U.S. and decreasing vaccination rates in U.S. communities. Even small pockets of unvaccinated people can lead to outbreaks because measles is highly contagious.

What should you do to keep your family safe from this disease? These answers to 10 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 it is followed by a rash that that typically starts on the forehead and spreads all over the body. Measles can be serious, especially for young children.

Even in previously healthy children, measles can cause complications, including:

  • Hospitalization (1 in 5)
  • Ear infections (1 in 10)
  • Pneumonia (up to 1 in 20)
  • Encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, which can lead to brain damage (1 in 1,000)
  • Death (1 to 3 in 1,000, even with good healthcare)

Additionally, measles can cause severe complications in pregnant women.

2. How is it spread?

Measles is spread through the air when an infected person 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 an infected person 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 appears to four days after the rash appears. The virus can live on infected surfaces and in the air 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 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that all children receive two doses of MMR vaccine beginning at 12 to 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. If your family is traveling overseas, talk to your child’s doctor about getting the vaccine sooner.

For questions about how to get your child the MMR vaccine, please contact your child’s doctor or our ParentSmart Healthline™ at 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 a serious allergic reaction from the MMR vaccine is very rare, about one in 1 million.

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

It’s never too late to get vaccinated. "One of the most important things you can do for your child's health is get them vaccinated, preventing potentially fatal diseases," says Sean O'Leary, MD.

Despite myths, vaccines are safe and effective, and are continually evaluated by an elaborate system. The most reliable source of information about vaccinations is your child's primary care provider.

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. In 2019, the U.S. has seen the greatest number of measles cases in nearly 30 years.

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 an increase in the number of measles cases.

Measles has remained common in many developing countries, and millions of people are affected by measles each year.

7. Should I worry about my child contracting measles?

If your child is 12 months old or older and is following the recommended vaccine schedule, it is very unlikely they will get measles, even if exposed. The vaccine is effective in 95 to 99% of people.

If your child is too young to be vaccinated (less than 12 months old), 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 old 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.

8. 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 doctor to decide which is best for you.

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

Colorado requires schools and licensed child care facilities to disclose their immunization and vaccine exemption rates and report rates annually to the health department. That means that anyone – including parents – can simply call and ask for the facility-wide rates. Parents can also look up vaccination and vaccine exemption rates for their child’s school or child care facility on the state health department’s school and child care immunization data website. Learn more from the Colorado Children's Immunization Coalition.

10. 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 policy decisions are made. We have many ways that you can get involved and participate. Join the Children’s 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 doctor or call our ParentSmart Healthline at 720-777-0123.

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