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What you need to know about the measles

measles vaccination

Since there have been multiple reports of cases of measles in the community, many people have questions about this disease.
As of July 17, there were eight cases reported in Sedgwick County, 11 in the state. The U.S. averages about 60 cases a year for the last 10 or so years, and so far this year, there have been more than 500 cases. This is the highest number of cases since measles was virtually eliminated in the U.S. in 2000.
I’ve been an infectious disease physician for 20 years, and I have seen a very small number of cases of measles. The reason measles are typically so rare is that the U.S. is a highly vaccinated country. Our children generally receive a dose of vaccine at around one year of age and get a second dose around the time they begin kindergarten. Most of the people who have grown up in the U.S. have been vaccinated. The vaccine is one of the requirements of attending school and proof of immunity is required to work in hospitals. As a result, children and adults in the US are generally immune to measles.
If you were born before 1957, you’re considered immune because the disease was much more common back in those days. After that time, we began vaccinating people on a large scale, so people born after 1957 are immune due to having the vaccine.  Most people receive two doses of the vaccine in childhood and that protects them for life.
The current outbreak we’re seeing is due to an unvaccinated person, which could be someone from a country where vaccinations aren’t done or a child who is too young to be vaccinated. We typically don’t vaccinate children until the age of 1.
Measles is highly contagious, so just being in a room with someone with measles is a potential to catch the disease if you are not immune. If there are 10 people in a room who are not vaccinated and one person has measles, as many as 8 of the susceptible persons are highly likely to contract the disease. Measles is spread through the air by breathing, coughing, or sneezing; you don’t have to have skin-to-skin contact with a person to get the disease. Measles can be spread to others from four days before to four days after the rash appears.
The vast majority of people who have the measles will get over the disease. Measles is a respiratory disease caused by a virus and will resolve with time. There’s not a specific drug to treat the disease. Unless the illness is very severe, most people are better cared for at home.
If 1,000 people have the measles, only about two will have severe complications. The vast majority of people will get over the measles just fine, but it’s important to prevent all the cases, which is best done through vaccination.
There are things that can be done to stem the spread of measles. Those that are not immune, can be vaccinated. Children under the age of 1 and pregnant women are typically unable to receive the vaccine, but, they could receive immune globulin which is a shot that contains antibodies that helps protect them from getting a severe case of the illness. Immune globulin would only be indicated in these particular cases if they were truly at risk for exposure to measles. 
People at high risk for severe illness and complications from measles include infants and children aged 5 and younger, adults over the age of 20, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems.
The signs and symptoms of measles typically begin one to two weeks after someone is exposed to an infected person.
Here are the sign/symptoms to look for:

  • Fever
  • Blotchy rash on the skin, which spreads from the head to  the trunk then to the lower extremities
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Red, watery eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • Feeling run down, achy
  • Tiny white spots with bluish-white centers found inside the mouth (Koplik spots)

If you or a loved one thinks they have the measles, we recommend calling your physician instead of going to their office or to the emergency department where you can risk infecting others. If your physician thinks you need emergent care, they can make arrangements for you to receive specialized care.
If you do not have a healthcare provider or have questions about this disease, call the Sedgwick County Health Department Measles Information Line at 316-660-7424.


About Maggie Hagan MD

Maggie Hagan, MD, is an infectious disease physician with Infectious Disease Consultants in Wichita.