Measles is a viral disease that is highly contagious and sometimes deadly. Due to the success of vaccination programs, it was declared eliminated from the US in 2000. However, each year there are small outbreaks transmitted by unvaccinated travelers (Americans or foreign visitors).
What are the symptoms of measles and why are complications so serious?
Initial measles symptoms include a moderate fever, runny nose, sore throat, a cough that won’t go away and red eyes. A rash, with small red spots that are grouped in clusters, appears first on the face and then spreads to the rest of the body over a few days. At this point, the fever can reach up to 104 degrees F. The measles virus is spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The measles virus can live on surfaces for up to 2 hours and someone may be exposed without being in close proximity to the infected person. It is very contagious as 90% of susceptible persons coming into contact with the virus become infected. Once infected with measles, symptoms do not appear for 7-14 days. Recent studies have shown measles compromise the immune system for up to 3 years post infection. The damaged immune system is a result of “immune amnesia,” where memory cells that protect the body against infectious diseases are partially wiped out. The ease with which measles can spread makes it almost impossible to prevent except through vaccination.
Pneumonia and encephalitis are two of the serious and sometimes fatal complications of measles. The CDC estimates that 1 out of 20 young children who get measles will get pneumonia, and 1 child out of 1,000 who get measles will suffer encephalitis (swelling of the brain), a condition that may cause seizures, deafness or permanent brain damage. According to the CDC, one or two of every 1,000 children who get measles will die due to complications. Before the measles vaccine in 1963, of the reported cases of people with measles in the US each year, about 400–500 died and about 48,000 were hospitalized.
Are there any risks to consider when deciding if my family should receive the MMR vaccine?
The MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella) vaccine is effective in preventing measles infections but like any medication, it can have side effects. Mild side effects include fever, mild rash, irritation at the injection site, & temporary joint pain. Very rare complications include febrile seizures, which have no lasting effects, and severe allergic reactions. The CDC considers the benefits of the MMR vaccine to highly outweigh the risks. Only about 1 in 3,000 children will have a febrile seizure after an MMR vaccination and about one in a million people who receive the MMR vaccine will have a severe allergic reaction.
The MMR vaccine is not recommended for some groups of people, such as those with a compromised immune system. Discuss the possible risks vs benefits with your child’s doctor to see if the MMR vaccine is appropriate for your child and to gather any further information about the MMR vaccine.