What experts say parents should know about measles

Measles outbreak on a child's arms and legs.

Measles is highly contagious and, according to experts, can be dangerous. (Getty Images)

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that 22.3 million babies worldwide missed their first dose of the measles vaccine in 2020, contributing to the largest annual increase in more than 20 years of non- vaccinated children in the US. The concern, researchers said at the time, was that it would lead to outbreaks of measles and other preventable diseases in the future.

Now there is a measles outbreak in central Ohio — and the majority of affected children are not vaccinated. Since the outbreak began in November 2022, there have been 85 measles cases and 34 people have been hospitalized with the virus, according to the official website of the City of Columbus. Of those affected, 78 were unvaccinated, six had only one dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine that works to prevent the disease, and one had unknown vaccination status.

All cases were in children 17 years and younger, and the vast majority of patients were 2 years and younger.

Columbus Health Commissioner Mysheika Roberts said in an interview last month that the outbreak began with a small group of people returning from an area where measles is a regular occurrence. The virus spread rapidly among young, unvaccinated children. “The reason so many of our young children have been affected by this measles outbreak is because that’s the vast majority of our population who are not vaccinated,” she said.

These aren’t the only measles cases in the U.S. in the past year: CDC data shows there were 118 measles cases in 2022, up from 49 cases in 2021. (Data for 2023 is not yet available online.)

It is understandable that you will have questions about the measles next. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Measles?

Measles, which is caused by a virus, is an acute viral respiratory disease that leads to a range of uncomfortable symptoms, including a clear rash, high fever and cough, according to the CDC. But it’s not a common disease. “Measles is a dangerous disease that can cause pneumonia and brain infections and wipe out aspects of a person’s immune system,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Yahoo Life. More specifically, a measles infection can damage a person’s immune system by wiping out up to 73% of pre-existing antibodies to other illnesses, including the flu.

The virus is also “extremely contagious — even more contagious than COVID,” Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York, told Yahoo Life.

Dr. Danelle Fisher, chairman of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California, tells Yahoo Life that measles is so contagious that the virus can still make someone sick for up to two hours after a person with measles leaves a room. “This is so very, very contagious,” she says.

How is measles transmitted?

Measles spreads in a way “similar to COVID,” Russo says. It is transmitted through direct contact with infectious droplets or respiratory particles that become airborne when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes, according to the CDC. And again, the virus can linger in the air for two hours after someone with measles leaves the area.

People can also get measles by touching an infected surface and then touching their eyes, nose or mouth, the CDC says.

The CDC points out that measles is so contagious that if a person has it, up to 90% of those around that person who are not immune to the virus will also become infected.

Measles signs to have on your radar

Measles symptoms usually appear seven to 14 days after someone is infected, according to the CDC, and symptoms usually come in stages.

In the first stage, a child usually experiences these symptoms:

  • High fever.

  • Cough.

  • Running nose.

  • Red, watery eyes.

“Usually you have these cold symptoms first,” says Fisher. From there, a patient may experience small white spots (called koplik spots) in the mouth, according to the CDC. Three to five days after symptoms begin, a rash usually breaks out, starting as flat red spots that appear on the face and spread to the rest of the body. Measles can also cause serious complications, such as pneumonia and brain swelling, according to the CDC. “It’s not a very nice disease to have,” says Russo.

How to prevent measles

Measles is prevented with the two-dose MMR vaccine. The CDC recommends that children receive the first dose of the vaccine when they are 12 to 15 months old and the second dose when they are 4 to 6 years old. One dose of the vaccine is about 93% effective in preventing measles, while both doses are about 97% effective, the CDC says.

It is important to point out that the majority of children affected by the Ohio outbreak were under age 2 and therefore not eligible for a full measles vaccination. However, those over 12 months old – the largest affected group – were eligible for the first vaccine in the series. Yet only six of the 85 people affected in the outbreak had received one injection.

Herd immunity — that is when a large enough portion of a population is immune to a disease that even people who aren’t vaccinated get some protection because the disease has little chance of spreading in the community — is important to help those who are are to be protected. haven’t been vaccinated yet, those who haven’t been fully vaccinated, and those who are immunocompromised and won’t have an optimal response to the vaccine, Russo says.

“The only means of protection is a vaccine,” says Fisher. “I can’t believe we’re here again. This is directly related to decreased immunizations.”

How is measles treated?

There is no specific treatment for measles. Instead, kids may be given acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches, pains, or fevers, and are encouraged to drink plenty of fluids, Russo says.

“We really don’t have much in the way of treatment,” he says. “The key with measles is prevention.”

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