7 Things to Know About Measles

Separating fact from fiction in the midst of the largest U.S. outbreak in 25 years.
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Measles is one of the world's most contagious diseases, so contagious that a child can contract the virus just by being in a room where a person with measles has been up to two hours after that person has left.

The CDC reports that the U.S. is experiencing the largest measles outbreak in 25 years. The World Health Organization has ranked vaccine hesitancy — the growing resistance to widely available lifesaving vaccines — as one of the top 10 health threats in the world for 2019. In the midst of the largest measles outbreak in the U.S. in 25 years, it’s more important now than ever to separate fact from fiction. Dr. Laura Netzley, a pediatrician at Novant Health Pediatrics Blakeney, helps break down what parents need to know about the measles virus, and the measles (MMR) vaccine.

How contagious is the measles?

Measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases. It’s so contagious that none out of 10 people who come in contact with a person who has the measles will also contract the virus if they are not protected. You can inhale the virus when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even talks. A child can get measles just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, even up to two hours after that person has left.

How dangerous is measles?

The severe health complications that arise from the virus can be deadly, especially for babies and young children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every 20 children with measles will develop pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children. About one child out of every 1,000 who gets measles develops encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which can leave the child deaf or with permanent disabilities. Additionally, about one in four people in the U.S. who get measles will be hospitalized, and two out of 1,000 people with measles will die, even with the best care. While this sounds scary, you have the power to protect your child against measles with a safe and effective vaccine. 

Why is vaccination important?

Vaccines have withstood the test of time and are proven to be very effective in protecting against viruses. The best way we can protect our children and our community from measles is to get vaccinated — plain and simple. More than 70% of the measles cases this year were in people who hadn’t been vaccinated.

Measles vaccination prevented an estimated 21.1 million deaths between 2000 and 2017, and continues to prevent 2 to 3 million deaths globally each year. Thanks to the vaccine, the CDC declared measles eliminated from the United States in 2000.

Vaccinating your child not only protects your child, but others in your community. Some people can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons: infants, pregnant women and people who are immune compromised. Take for example, a 5-month-old baby who is too young to be vaccinated. If the infant is exposed to a 4-year-old who has the virus, the infant can — and likely will — contract the disease.

Why do children need two doses of the vaccine? And what about overloading a child’s immune system?

Many parents choosing not to vaccinate worry about overloading their child’s immune system with the vaccine, but the amount of antigen in a vaccine is a tiny fraction of the amount of germs that a child’s immune system is exposed to on a daily basis and the chemicals in vaccines are not toxic.

Children should receive the first dose of the MMR vaccine between 12 and 15 months of age and the second dose at 4 to 6 years of age. The first dose provides 93% immunity against the measles and increases to 97% after the second dose. 

If your child is between 6 and 11 months of age and your family is traveling overseas, he or she should receive one dose of MMR vaccine before leaving. Children 12 months and older should receive two doses at least 28 days apart. 

Does the measles vaccine cause autism?

No, there is no relationship between autism and the MMR vaccine. This has been carefully studied by scientists and doctors around the globe.

Where does the link between autism and vaccines come from?

The concern originated from a study done in England in the 1980’s by a physician who suggested a supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This study was significantly flawed and based on false science. It was retracted from the scientific journal it was originally published in due to the falsified information.

Many studies, including a study of more than half a million Danish children, have found no evidence that vaccines increased the risk of autism, but hesitancy remains a problem due to the circulation of false information on social media, anti-vaxxer groups, and influencer and celebrity endorsements. This puts children, and babies especially, at risk of developing deadly diseases.

So what do you think is causing parents to choose not to vaccinate their children?

The reasons why people choose not to vaccinate are complex. While some parents cite religious or philosophical beliefs, a lack of confidence in vaccines and reliable health information contribute to underlying hesitancy. We have overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, but many cite concerns over the safety of vaccines and that vaccines cause autism as their reasons for not vaccinating.

Michele Huggins is the editor of Charlotte Parent magazine.