A large measles outbreak that began in California and spread to other states has placed renewed attention on the contagious disease characterized by a high fever and a rash that begins on the face and neck.
In December, at least 40 people who visited or worked at Disneyland in Southern California contracted measles, and the virus spread to at least half a dozen other states, officials said. In California alone, 130 cases of measles have been confirmed since December.
“Measles is a highly contagious respiratory virus but the good news is that it’s a largely preventable disease,” says Connie Bartlett, DO, a pediatrician with
St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group in Santa Ana. “The most important step in measles prevention is vaccination, which is safe and effective. There’s no treatment for measles, which is why getting vaccinated is crucial to protecting your children, yourself and members of the community.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all children receive two doses of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. The first dose should be given when a child is around a year old; the second dose is usually given between the ages of 4 and 6. MMR is a weakened live virus vaccine that causes a harmless inflection in the vaccinated person. It causes someone’s immune system to fight off the infection, which builds immunity.
“Most people who receive a single dose of MMR – more than 95% – develop immunity to the measles, mumps and rubella (German measles) viruses,” Dr. Bartlett says. “But that doesn’t mean you can skip the second dose. Make sure your child has both doses.”
Measles begins with a fever that lasts for a couple of days. A cough, runny nose and pink eye soon follow. A rash begins on the face and neck, spreads down the back and trunk and then goes to the arms, hands, legs and feet. After about five days, the rash fades in the same order it appeared.
People with measles are contagious for about four days before the rash appears to four days after it starts. Measles spreads when an infected person sneezes or coughs, releasing the virus into the air. Measles can also settle on nearby surfaces, where it can survive for several hours.
Measles can be bothersome and unpleasant but complications can be dangerous. Up to 20 percent of the people who get the disease will get an ear infection, diarrhea, or even pneumonia. One out of 1,000 people with measles will develop inflammation of the brain, and about one out of 1,000 will die. Young children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.
While widespread in Europe, Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, measles has been kept at bay in the U.S. through vaccinations. The MMR vaccine has led to a 99% reduction in measles cases in the U.S. compared to the pre-vaccine era.
“Talk to your pediatrician if you have questions about the vaccine or the timing of it,” Dr. Bartlett says.
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