Protecting Your Family During a Measles Outbreak


Since December there have been more than 100 cases of measles in an outbreak that began at Disneyland in California. Many of the people who have gotten sick were not vaccinated against measles, a stark reminder of the importance of making sure your children are fully vaccinated.

Here are some answers to questions parents may have about this measles outbreak:

How are measles spread?

Measles, also called rubeola, is one of the most infectious agents know today. The virus spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes and then someone nearby inhales the infected droplets. It can also be transmitted by direct contact with fluids from the nose or mouth of an infected person. It is very contagious and can live for up to 2 hours on surfaces that people may have touched or in the air where they may have sneezed.  People in a crowded place, such as an airport or amusement park, have a chance of coming into contact with measles.

Most of the recent outbreaks in the United States have begun when an unvaccinated person travels to another country with measles outbreaks and then brings it back into the U.S.

What are the symptoms of measles?

Before a rash even appears, children with measles develop cold-like symptoms such as a cough, runny nose, fever, and red watery eyes. These symptoms tend to get worse during the first 1-3 days. The most recognizable symptom of measles is a very high fever accompanied by a red or brownish blotchy rash.


Image source: CDC/ Heinz F. Eichenwald, MD

I thought measles was a mild illness – why is there alarm now?

Up until the 1970s measles was a common childhood disease.  It was almost an expected part of growing up.  While most children recovered without complications, some children developed pneumonia, encephalitis (a brain infection), or even died. For every 1,000 people who got the measles 1 or 2 would die.  Before the vaccine became available, an average of 450 people died from measles every year; most of them were healthy children.

With the success of the measles vaccine we can now protect children from the measles. In recent years some parents or guardians have refused or delayed vaccinating their children out of fear or as a result of misinformation about the safety of vaccines. This means that there are more people in the United States who are now at risk for the measles. This would include infants who are too young to be vaccinated as well as those who may be unvaccinated due to other health conditions.

Is the measles vaccine safe?

Yes, the measles vaccine is very safe and it is much safer than getting the measles infection. A vaccine, as with any medicine, is capable of causing side effects that are usually quite mild.  Common side effects could include pain or swelling at the injection site for a day or two. The risk of the measles vaccine causing any type of serious harm is extremely small.

When should children get the measles vaccine?

According to the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians the recommendation is for children to receive the MMR vaccine at age 12-15 months, and again at 4-6 years.  Children may receive the second dose earlier as long as it is at least 28 days after the first dose.

When the immunization rates are high in a community, it helps to protect those who are too young to be vaccinated or cannot be vaccinated for healthy reasons. Infants under the age of 12 months are at the highest risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and death due to measles.

How long does the measles vaccine provide protection?

The measles vaccine is very effective, however no vaccine is 100% effective. Some people may be at risk for getting measles if they only received 1 dose (and this was the recommendation up until 1989). With a second dose of measles vaccine protection increases to greater than 95%.

I’m not sure if I’ve been vaccinated for measles. Do I need a booster?

Talk to your doctor to see if anyone in your family needs to be vaccinated. There is no risk to receiving the measles vaccine if you have been immunized before.  That said, measles is a live vaccine and people with immune problems, or who are receiving medications that suppress the immune system, should not receive the measles vaccine without consulting first with their doctor.

For more information on the measles, please visit our patient care center

Infographic from:

Source: CMG