Measles Outbreak: Here’s What You Need to Know

We sometimes forget the health choices we make affect the people around us. This fact is evident in the current, growing outbreak of measles in the U.S. At least 555 cases of measles have been reported since January this year, and the outbreak shows no sign of slowing down. This is especially discouraging since it was only about two decades ago that health officials in the U.S. declared measles eliminated.

There’s far too much misinformation about the MMR vaccine, which is one of the easiest and most critical steps you can take to protect the health of your family and the people around you. So consider this a little nudge.

Why are there currently so many cases of measles in the U.S.?

While measles may have previously been declared eliminated here at home, that’s not the case in other countries. In fact, countries around the world with lower vaccination rates than in the U.S. have been experiencing outbreaks this year. When people travel to countries where the virus is prevalent, they can pick up the virus. When they return to communities in the U.S. where vaccination rates are not high enough, measles, which is highly contagious, spreads. It’s estimated that roughly 90 percent of a population needs the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine in order for the community to achieve what is known as “herd immunity” which prevents any large scale outbreak.

How is measles contracted? What are the signs and symptoms?

Measles is spread a person accidentally ingests or inhales respiratory droplets put into the air by an infected person. This can happen when the sick person coughs, sneezes, or even talks. Early symptoms include fever, dry cough, runny nose, sore throat, and red eyes. A person with measles will also develop tiny white spots inside the cheek, which are called Koplik’s spots. At least three days after symptoms begin, the individual will develop a splotchy rash along the hairline and all over the body.

At what age does my child need to be vaccinated?

The MMR vaccine is given later than other childhood vaccines because antibodies from the mother provide some protection in the first year of life. In general, it is recommended that children receive two doses of the MMR vaccine. The first should be given after the child’s first birthday, while the second dose at age 4 to 6. Children older than that who haven’t been vaccinated should receive the vaccine immediately, with the two doses at least 28 days apart. Some doctors recommend the MMR vaccine for a child as young as 6 months if there’s a widespread measles outbreak, or if a family is traveling to a country where measles is common. Parents who are concerned or unsure about when to vaccinate should talk to their pediatrician or family physician.

How do I know if my vaccines are up-to-date? How do you know if you need a booster?

The measles vaccine became available in 1963, but many adults may not be completely certain if they received both shots as a kid. If that’s the case, an adult can have a simple blood test that detects measles antibodies or ask for a booster shot. An adult who has never received the MMR vaccine should get at least one shot, especially before traveling to other parts of the world where vaccination rates are low.

Is the measles vaccine safe?

Any medical treatment, including vaccines, can have side effects but they are not typically serious. After the MMR vaccine, some children may develop a fever, mild rash, temporary pain, and stiffness or a sore arm. But most people who get the MMR vaccine do not have problems. If administered properly in two doses, the vaccine provides 97 percent protection from measles.

Measles, on the other hand, is far more dangerous, especially for a child. Roughly one in four people who get measles in the U.S. are hospitalized with complications including brain swelling and pneumonia. Measles can be fatal and also can cause life-long disability including brain damage and hearing loss.

Related: 

What You Should Know About the Measles Virus

What to Know About the Flu Vaccine

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