Q&A on Measles & Vaccines

HEALTH

The battle against measles in the United States was considered won 15 years ago. But around 60 people have contracted measles in the U.S. since just last month. Here are some basic questions and answers about the recent measles outbreak. (Nat Geo News)

Teachers, scroll down for a short list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

Warning for the squeamish: This post contains a photo of a person’s belly with a measles rash. 

Measles is just one childhood disease that has been virtually eliminated since the widespread introduction of a measles vaccine. Graphic by Lawson Parker, National Geographic

Measles is just one childhood disease that has been virtually eliminated since the widespread introduction of a vaccine.
Graphic by Lawson Parker, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas
Read through the Nat Geo News article for a great series of question-and-answers about measles, the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine, and the recent measles outbreak in California. Here is some basic information from the article and the CDC website on measles.

 

  • How do you get the measles?
    • Measles is a virus that that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person. It passes through droplets in the air, usually from an infected person sneezing or coughing.
    • The measles virus can live for up to two hours in the air or on an infected surface.
    • According to the CDC, measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.

 

  • What are the symptoms?
    • About a week or two after exposure, an infected person develops a fever, runny nose, cough, watery eyes, and maybe muscle aches. Most patients also develop a rash, although the rash often does not appear for days after the person has been infected.
      This 1958 photo from the National Center for Infectious Diseases shows the skin of a patient three days after the first symptoms of measles appeared. Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 3 million to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States. Photograph by Heinz F. Eichenwald, MD, courtesy CDC

      This 1958 photo from the National Center for Infectious Diseases shows the skin of a patient three days after the first symptoms of measles appeared. Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 3 million to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States.
      Photograph by Heinz F. Eichenwald, MD, courtesy CDC

       

  • How long does a case of the measles last?
    • In most people, the symptoms go away in one or two weeks.

 

  • What are some complications from a measles infection?
    • Common complications include ear infections and diarrhea. About one out of every 10 people with measles develops these complications.
    • Severe complications include pneumonia and encephalitis.
      • As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia.
      • About one child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain). Encephalitis can leave the child deaf or mentally handicapped.
      • For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.
    • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) is a very rare, but fatal disease of the central nervous system that results from a measles infection acquired earlier in life. SSPE generally develops 7 to 10 years after a person has measles.
    • Measles may cause pregnant woman to give birth prematurely, or have a low-birth-weight baby.

 

  • Who is most at-risk for contracting measles?
    • Unvaccinated children are most at-risk. Other vulnerable populations include children under a year old (who are too young to have been vaccinated); pregnant women; and people with compromised immune systems, such as older adults and those getting treated for cancer.

 

  • Until recently, it looked like measles was under control, right?
    • No. Until recently, it looked like measles was relatively under control in the United States. Measles is still a common disease in many countries.
    • In 2013, there were about 175 cases in the United States. In 2014 there were 23 outbreaks in 27 states, accounting for 664 infections.
    • Worldwide, measles deaths reached historic lows in 2012, down to 122,000 from 562,000 a dozen years earlier, according to the World Health Organization.
  • Graphic courtesy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    Graphic courtesy the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

     

  • When do you get vaccinated for measles?
    • Since the late 1980s, doctors have routinely given children two vaccinations: once between the ages of 12-15 months, and once again between the ages of 4-6 years.
    • College students who do not have evidence of immunity against measles need two doses of the vaccine, separated by at least 28 days.
    • The CDC recommends people 6 months of age and older who will be traveling internationally should receive one (6-11 months) or two (12 months and older) doses of the vaccine.

 

  • Is there anyone who should not be vaccinated with the measles vaccine?
    • Anyone who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to the antibiotic neomycin, or any other component of MMR vaccine, should not get the vaccine.
    • Anyone who had a life-threatening allergic reaction to a previous dose of the vaccine should not get another dose.
    • Some people who are sick at the time the shot is scheduled may be advised to wait until they recover before getting the vaccine.
    • Pregnant women should not get the vaccine.
    • People in any of these groups should inform their doctor, as they may not benefit from the vaccine, or a vaccination may be delayed until later:
      • People who have HIV/AIDS, or another disease that affects the immune system.
      • People treated with drugs that affect the immune system, such as steroids.
      • People who have any kind of cancer or are being treated for cancer with radiation or drugs.
      • People who have ever had a low platelet count (a blood disorder).
      • People who have gotten another vaccine within the past 4 weeks.
      • People who have recently had a transfusion or received other blood products.

 

  • Is anyone who has been vaccinated safe from measles?
    • Young adults who received the two doses of vaccine are 98% protected against the disease.
    • Middle-aged people who received only one dose have about 93% protection.
    • FYI: Most Americans who are older than 51 were exposed to measles in childhood, when the virus was common in the United States, and so developed immunity.

 

  • Were all the people who got sick in the most recent outbreak of unvaccinated for measles?
    • Unknown. There have been 59 cases of measles in California since late 2014, and the state has vaccine documentation for 34 of them. All of those 34 were unvaccinated. (Six were too young for the vaccination.)

 

  • Besides vaccination, is there anything people can do to protect themselves?
    • The MMR vaccination is the best protection against measles, period.
    • Hygiene is your second-best protection against the disease. Cover your mouth when you cough—with your sleeve, not your hand—and wash your hands often.
    • If you choose not to vaccinate, Ann Marie Pettis (director of infection prevention at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York) also suggests avoiding busy places with international communities, such as airports and tourist attractions.

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: Measles Are Back: Key Questions and Answers on Disease, Vaccinations

Nat Geo: Shots that Save Lives

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Measles

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Measles Vaccination

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