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If you watch the news then you have seen the increase in measles outbreaks, particularly with children. Its symptoms mimic the common cold, but a few tell-tale signs can keep you safe from contracting this highly-contagious virus. To help you better understand the disease and what to look out for, we’re giving you the facts and need to know information.

What is the Measles?

Measles is caused by a virus that grows in the cells lining the throat and lungs, which affects mostly children. There is no specific treatment for measles and most people recover within two to three weeks. However, long-term complications – and even death – may occur.

In the 1950s, nearly all children got measles by the time they were 15 years old, and reported cases estimated 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized and 1,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles each year. The measles vaccine has been used since the 1960s, and the disease was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000.

However, this year, the once-eliminated virus has resurfaced due to a decrease of people who get the MMR vaccine and an increase in the number of travelers who get measles abroad and bring it to the U.S. In 2019, there have been 704 individual cases of measles in 22 states so far – the greatest number reported in the U.S. since 1994.

What are the risk factors?

Since measles is an airborne disease – transmitted when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes – it is very contagious. Lower the likelihood of getting the disease by noting the following risk factors:

Being unvaccinated. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend two doses of the MMR vaccine, which is about 97% effective at preventing measles. Those who haven’t had the vaccine are much more likely to get the measles.

Traveling internationally. Measles is still common in many other countries. Traveling to where measles is more common heightens the risk of catching the disease. Check the CDC’s website to find out more about a specific location.

Having a vitamin A deficiency. Those who don’t have enough vitamin A in your diet are more likely to have more severe symptoms and complications.

What are the symptoms and how it is detected?

The earliest measles symptoms generally start to appear seven to 14 days after a person is infected. Common symptoms include:

  • High fever
  • Dry cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Red and irritated eyes (conjunctivitis)

These can often be confused with the common cold. Although, unlike its counter-part, early signs of measles can also include Koplik’s spots, tiny red spots with blue-white centers all over the cheeks on the inside of the mouth. Within three to five days later the symptoms become more severe, and a splotchy red rash spreads down the body from head to toe.

If any of these symptoms are experienced, consult your physician. Since symptoms can mimic those of the common cold, physicians will work through a process of elimination to make a Measles diagnosis, if needed. Things they’ll take into consideration include:  

Travel. If a person reports recent international travel then they may have gone to one of the many locations where measles is prevalent.

Koplik’s spots. These are a common sign of measles; tiny red spots with blue-white centers all over the cheeks on the inside of the mouth.

Rash. This is a sign of measles in its later stage, covering a person’s body in a matter of days.

Lab testing. Providers can identify measles through blood and/or urine test.

Providers are told to report suspected measles cases to their local health department within 24 hours.

How is it treated?

If a person gets the MMR vaccine within the first three days of being exposed to someone with measles, then it has a slight chance of preventing the virus from developing. However, there aren’t any specific treatments for measles. This is why it is important to be proactive and get the MMR vaccine.

Once a person is already sick, it is best that they rest, drink plenty of fluids and take acetaminophen (Tylenol) for fever. Don’t give aspirin to children because of the risk for a rare, but serious, condition known as Reye’s syndrome.

What are the after-effects?

While rest, fluids and acetaminophen are the best way for those with measles to fight the disease, children younger than 5 years old, adults older than 20 years old, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems should be on the lookout for additional long-term complications, including:

Ear infections. This occurs in about one out of every 10 children with measles and can result in permanent hearing loss.

Irritation and swelling of the brain, which can occur right after measles or months later. This can cause seizures, coma, and long term disability.

This is the most common death in young children, occurring in as many as one out of every 20 children with measles.

Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). A very rare but fatal disease of the central nervous system that develops seven to 10 years after a person recovers from measles.

For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from respiratory and neurologic complications.

How can you protect yourself?

The good news is that measles is extremely preventable with the vaccine. Due to the reemergence of measles, it is important for anyone born after 1957 to get the vaccination. Typically, the measles vaccine is administered during childhood. Children are given the first dose at 12 to 15 months old and the second dose at four to six years old. Two doses of the MMR vaccine are about 97% effective at preventing measles while one dose is about 93% effective.

If you are unvaccinated, visit your Doctor’s office, a pharmacy or a walk-in clinic to get your MMR vaccine today. For additional information on measles, visit the Centers for Disease Control website.


Sources:

CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/measles/downloads/measlesdataandstatsslideset.pdf

CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/measles/about/history.html

World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/immunization/diseases/measles/en/

CDC: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/diseases/measles

Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/reyes-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20377255

Joe Oleniacz, MD and Larry Wu, MD

About Joe Oleniacz, MD and Larry Wu, MD

Joe Oleniacz, MD is an associate medical director for Blue Cross NC. He spent nearly 35 years practicing pediatrics prior to joining Blue Cross NC. He practiced in the USAF and at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, Kaiser Permanente, and Chapel Hill Pediatrics. Larry Wu, MD is a regional medical director for Blue Cross NC and provides consultative services for employee health solutions, prevention, chronic disease, care management, medical expense, and utilization management. He is a family physician with over 20 years in clinical practice.