Despite having been declared eliminated from the United States in 2000 thanks to widespread immunization, measles cases still occur across the world today. In the past year alone, numerous public health emergencies have been declared over major outbreaks, from Washington state to Brooklyn, and such outbreaks are on the rise globally. But as is the case with most panic-inducing news, there’s quite a bit of misinformation out there, not only about how measles spreads, but also about what measles is.
Below, all your basic questions answered.
Okay, so: What is measles?
In short, it’s a highly contagious and potentially deadly infectious disease that most often affects children, which is why doctors’ top recommendation to parents is to vaccinate their children. Once measles is contracted, it can take weeks for a patient to (hopefully) fight it off.
What are the symptoms?
The CDC reports that an infected person typically won’t show symptoms for 10 to 14 days after contracting measles. But following that period, infected individuals will usually come down with a hacking cough, runny nose, and bloodshot eyes. Then, about three to five days after symptoms start, patients will break out in a red or red-brown rash that often originates on the forehead; often, this is accompanied by a high fever.
When are you supposed to be vaccinated?
There are two vaccines that can prevent measles, per the National Vaccine Program Office: the MMR and the MMRV, the latter of which requires one less injection but has a higher likelihood of side effects. (The vaccines protect against measles, mumps, and, rubella, the first of which is much more contagious and dangerous than the others.)
The CDC recommends that children get their first dose between 12 to 15 months of age, and the second between the ages of 4 and 6. Once vaccinated, it’s highly unlikely that an individual will contract the disease. Per the CDC, one dose of the MMR vaccine is 93 percent effective at preventing measles, while two doses are 97 percent effective.
How does measles spread?
Measles is transmitted through the air by respiratory droplets, typically produced from coughing or sneezing. And, it’s one of the most contagious diseases out there. Per the National Vaccine Program Office, nine out of ten unvaccinated individuals who come in contact with an infected person or airborne droplets will contract measles. (People with measles are most infectious from four days before the rash starts until about four or so days after, according to KidsHealth.)
What areas are especially susceptible to outbreaks?
Measles tends to spread most quickly in tight-knit, under-immunized communities, with the majority of cases affecting kids. While the low vaccination rate can be a result of religious convictions about vaccination, outbreaks can also occur in areas where parents aren’t vaccinating their kids out of fear that vaccines cause autism, though that has been thoroughly debunked. (This year, the WHO listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top ten threats to global health.) Furthermore, it doesn’t help when states like Washington and Oregon permit parents to willingly opt out of vaccinating their children.
And per the WHO, the number of measles cases is on the rise globally. While the number of confirmed cases worldwide has increased over the past two years, per their new data, “reported cases rose by 300% in the first three months of 2019.”
“While this data is provisional and not yet complete, it indicates a clear trend,” the report reads. “Many countries are in the midst of sizeable measles outbreaks, with all regions of the world experiencing sustained rises in cases … The disease has spread fast among clusters of unvaccinated people.”
In the United States alone, there have been 555 confirmed cases in 2019, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the highest number since measles was “eliminated.”
And what’s up with these reports about “measles parties”?
In the face of the state’s worst measles outbreak in decades, New York City health commissioner Oxiris Barbot said that she had heard stories of parents in the area throwing “measles parties” to naturally “immunize” their children by infecting them, which she vehemently discouraged.
“Back in the day people were having parties to expose their kids to chicken pox,” Barbot said, per BuzzFeed News. “We live in a different world now … there are serious consequences to that.”
Is there a treatment?
Once you have it, there is no specific treatment for measles. While the CDC and World Health Organization recommend administering vitamin A to patients, as its levels have been shown to decrease in infected individuals, many state health officials argue that healthy children in developed countries need not worry about vitamin A levels. (Many anti-vaxxers incorrectly believe that getting enough vitamin A can protect children from the measles, and therefore, vaccination is not necessary.)
“For a child with a healthy diet in the U.S., taking more vitamin A will not have any effect on their measles disease as they already get enough of it,” the Washington Department of Health warns. “The only way to avoid getting measles is to be vaccinated against it.”
Are there any complications of measles?
Per the WHO, the most serious complications of measles are blindness, brain-swelling due to encephalitis, diarrhea, dehydration, and respiratory infections like pneumonia.