As many countries are experiencing severe and prolonged measles outbreaks, travelers are at increased risk. We asked Dean Blumberg, associate professor and chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, to answer some frequently asked questions about measles.
Q: Wasn't measles eradicated?
DB: It was eradicated from indigenous transmission in the U.S. in 2000. We don’t have any cases in the U.S. unless they are imported.
Q: How is measles making its return?
DB: It is being brought back into the U.S. from travelers from other countries, where the disease is more common, and is being spread to susceptible children. Children may be susceptible to measles because they are too young to be vaccinated, their parents choose not to have them vaccinated, or in rare instances when the vaccine does not work.
Q: How is measles spread?
DB: Measles is one of the most contagious diseases out there. Measles can be airborne and can get into very small particle size, be suspended in the air, and can stay that way for up to two hours. So if a person with measles enters and then leaves a room, they can infect people that enter that same room up to two hours later, without having direct contact with them. Common symptoms are a fever and a rash that starts on a patient’s head and spreads downward. If you suspect that you may have measles, contact your health-care provider and ask if you can be seen in isolation.
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Q: When should children get the measles shot?
DB: The first dose is typically given between 12 and 15 months of age. The second dose is routinely given between 4 and 6 years of age. By the time children enter school, they should have the two doses. The first protects children 95 percent of the time. The second dose increases their protection from measles to about 99 percent.
Q: How dangerous is the measles?
DB: Complications can range from pneumonia to encephalitis, which is swelling of the brain. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it. Before widespread measles vaccination in the U.S., 500 children died from measles every year.
For more information about measles, visit the CDC site.
Q: Does the measles vaccine offer a lifetime of immunity?
DB: The majority of adults are immune since they had measles as children or received the vaccination after it became widely available in 1967. If there are any adults who are uncertain whether they have been vaccinated for measles, I would encourage them to talk to their health-care provider and see if there is any vaccination record, and if not, they can be vaccinated. If they’ve been vaccinated and are immune, there is no danger in getting an additional dose of vaccine.