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Why Measles Remains a Threat

Once an almost inevitable childhood illness for an American child, measles (rubeola) has reached an all-time low in this country. Since the late 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recorded fewer than 50 cases in each year.

But children still need immunization because measles remains a significant threat in other parts of the world. Worldwide, nearly 200,000 people die each year from measles.

In the United States, the cases that do occur are because of imported measles, the CDC says. Many of these cases occur among adults and children returning from visits to foreign countries.

Most U.S. children have been vaccinated, but the vaccine is only 95 to 98 percent effective, the CDC says. That means some children exposed to measles can still contract the disease.

The vaccine--usually a combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine--is given at 12 to 15 months of age, with a booster at ages 4 to 6 years (or at ages 11 to 12 if not given earlier). The booster helps ensure that most children are protected, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Measles should not be confused with rubella, which is known as "German measles." Rubella is caused by a different virus that often causes no symptoms. It's also much shorter and milder than measles, but a woman who contracts rubella early in pregnancy can pass it to her unborn child, causing potentially serious complications.

Measles spreads quickly through coughing, sneezing, or talking. Nearly everyone who is exposed to the measles virus will probably develop measles if he or she is not immunized.

Although measles is chiefly known for its red rash, its true danger lies in its complications. The virus can lead to bronchitis, pneumonia, encephalitis, and ear infections. If the virus moves to the brain, it can cause swelling known as encephalitis. Infants face a higher risk of complications than older children.

Most people born prior to 1957, before the vaccine was introduced, are considered immune because the infection was so widespread then that most people contracted the disease. Anyone born after 1957 should be vaccinated.

Measles symptoms

Symptoms appear 7 to 14 days after exposure. A person with measles is contagious for up to four days before symptoms appear until four days after the rash appears. Symptoms include:

  • Fever, which may become very high when the skin rash appears.

  • Runny nose

  • Pink, watery eyes (conjunctivitis)  

  • Dry cough

  • Diarrhea

  • Tiny white spots on mouth lining (Koplik spots)

  • Skin rash of dull red, slightly raised spots (usually appears four or five days after symptoms start); the rash starts on the face and spreads down the body to the feet

What you can do

  • Make sure your child is immunized.

  • If your child contracts measles, keep him or her home, away from other children, until your doctor gives the OK to return to school.

  • Encourage your child to rest. It's not necessary to stay in bed.

  • Give your child plenty of clear liquids--water and juice are good choices.

  • For fever, you can give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, children and teens with a fever should not take aspirin or aspirin-containing products.