Post updated December 30, 2020

Many Baby Boomers recall the days when nearly every kid got the measles. Indeed, before 1963, measles was one of the most common childhood diseases in history. In those days, the virus was responsible for around 2.6 million deaths every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Thankfully, in 2000, the American medical community eliminated measles, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Still, measles outbreaks tend to make national headlines every so often.

In September 2019, an 11-month measles outbreak in New York City finally ended after more than 650 people were infected with the virus. The outbreak was traced back to a 14-year-old boy who traveled from Israel and had come into contact with an infected person before traveling to New York City. When the infected boy came in contact with a close-knit, under-vaccinated community in New York, the disease spread quickly.

So, what is measles, and how can we prevent it?

What Is The Measles Virus?

Measles is a serious, highly contagious viral infection that attacks the respiratory tract before spreading to other areas of the body. Early symptoms include a high fever, a cough, a runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes.

But among the most recognizable effects of measles on the body is the characteristic rash. Most often the telltale rash erupts in the mouth and on the face and neck. It spreads to the limbs, eventually appearing on the hands and feet before subsiding.

What makes this virus so dangerous is its communicability. The CDC has estimated 90% of people near an infected person will contract measles. Infected people can spread measles to others up to four days before the appearance of the telltale rash.

Who Is Most at Risk for Measles?

Developing and poverty-stricken countries are most at risk for widespread measles outbreaks. Regions that have suffered disasters or strife also have more cases of measles. In these situations, medical infrastructure is compromised and vaccines are less readily available.

Those at highest risk here in America are young unvaccinated children and unvaccinated pregnant women. Also of concern are non-immune individuals. This includes people who have not been vaccinated and people who received the vaccine but did not develop immunity.

Most cases are unknowingly brought home from overseas. When that happens, communities with low vaccination rates are at highest risk.

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What Makes Measles Dangerous?

Measles is serious because of common complications. Severe diarrhea can cause dehydration. Pneumonia, blindness, and brain swelling (encephalitis) are among other severe complications of measles. Again, the people in high-risk groups for the virus itself are also at higher risk of serious complications.

Know the Symptoms

The measles virus is progressive and somewhat deceiving in that its initial symptoms mimic other colds and viruses. Measles symptoms typically don’t reveal themselves until 10 to 14 days after exposure. People remain contagious four days prior to the appearance of a rash and four days after.

Most people experience the following symptoms when exposed:

  • High Fever
  • Dry cough
  • Runny nose and sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Inflamed, red, watery eyes
  • Malaise, fatigue, and muscle aches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash
  • Headache and possible sensitivity to light
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Tiny white spots with bluish-white centers on a red background found inside the mouth on the inner lining of the cheek

What to Do if You Suspect Measles

“If you believe you have symptoms of measles, please contact your PCP immediately to notify them that you may have been exposed,” said Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker. “Do not go directly to the office, urgent care center, or emergency room, as this may expose other people.”

Pregnant women should contact their doctor about their immune status. Health care providers who suspect measles should call the Health Department at 412-687-ACHD (2243) for consultation and to arrange testing. Most importantly, get your measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine as soon as possible if you haven’t already done so. Vaccines not only protect you and your loved ones, they protect those whose immune systems are compromised, which includes infants and the elderly.”

Treatment and Prevention of Measles

Sadly, there’s no cure for measles. Once transmitted, the virus must run its course. Doctors make a diagnosis by observing the effects of measles on the body. Then, they’ll recommend a supportive medical care regimen which may include administering fluids, proper nutrition, and antibiotics when necessary for associated conditions such as infections in the eyes or ears as a result of contracting measles.

This regimen can mitigate the rate and intensity of complications and even save lives.

The remarkable fact about today’s headline-making measles outbreaks is that they are entirely preventable. The measles vaccination is simple, inexpensive, and safe. But most importantly, it’s 97% effective.

For a specific timetable on when doctors recommend each vaccine, check out the easy-to-understand immunization schedule from UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. To schedule a well visit to get up-to-date on your kids’ measles vaccination right away, call the Primary Care Center by dialing 412-692-6000. You can also catch the bright, colorful Ronald McDonald Medical Care Mobile next time it’s in your area.

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh ranks consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is a longtime national leader for women and their newborns. We aim to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond.