There are certain things in life that we just don’t want to make a comeback. One of those is measles. Though the virus was considered eliminated in the United States in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s now back—big time. This year, it seems that every day the number of measles cases in the United States continues to grow. As of the end of this April, it is the highest number since 2000. That leaves many adults wondering, “Should I be worried? If I had measles or a vaccination many years ago, am I still covered, or do I need a booster shot?
Who is at risk for developing measles?
Young children who have not been vaccinated are at the highest risk of developing measles, according to the World Health Organization. The symptoms of measles, which include a rash, cough, red and watery eyes, fever and cough are uncomfortable and can last anywhere from four to seven days. There is no medication to treat the virus. It is not the actual virus that poses the biggest threat, however. Most deaths from measles occur because of the complications associated with the disease, such as encephalitis, diarrhea, dehydration and pneumonia. These complications are most common in children under the age of five and adults over the age of 30.
Are adults at risk of developing measles?
The short answer is that almost all adults over the age of 30 in the United States have a very small risk of developing measles. “That’s because almost every adult over that age either has natural immunity because they had measles as a child or because they received the vaccination,” explained John Eplee, MD, a family physician at Atchinson Hospital in Kansas.
The first measles vaccine was available in 1963, according to the CDC, and children as young as 9 months who had not already had the measles started getting immunized. This vaccine killed the measles virus rather than building immunity from exposure to a small amount of the live virus, like the improved vaccine, which became available in 1968, and is the one that is still used today. The vaccine is given in two doses. The first dose is about 93 percent effective and the second bumps that up to 97 percent. Almost all adults in the United States today that did not have measles as a child have received both doses of the vaccine and don’t need to worry about contracting the disease.
Are there exceptions to the rule?
Between 1963 and 1967, the vaccine was not as effective as the one that was used starting in 1968. It is possible that adults who received only one measles vaccine between those years may still be at risk. However, most adults who required the vaccine did receive a second one, which increased their immunity. In addition, any adult who received only one vaccine, rather than the suggested two, would fall into the 93 percent effective group and have a 7 percent chance of getting measles. “Even if they did get measles, they would not get near as sick as they have partial immunity,” explained Dr. Eplee. “There is a blood test to determine if you are susceptible to measles, but it’s very expensive, and most doctors do not recommend it. Instead, if you do not think you had the second dose, your doctor may just suggest having an additional dose now.”
There are also some young adults who may be at risk for developing measles. In the late 1990s a small segment of people started questioning vaccines and choosing not to have their children vaccinated. This was mostly the result of a debunked study, which linked vaccines to autism. The study was retracted in 2010 because the findings were found to be “incorrect,” according to The Lancet, who originally published the study. There is no link between vaccines and autism; however, there are some children, teens and young adults who have not been vaccinated, which has contributed to today’s measles outbreak. Immunizations protect not only yourself, but your community — this is often referred to as herd immunity. When most people are vaccinated within a community, the germs can’t spread as quickly, which means there is less of a chance of an outbreak. For an extremely contagious disease such as measles, at least 90 to 95 percent of people should be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks. Areas that have pockets of people who are not vaccinated are the ones most likely to see increased cases of measles.
What should you do now?
If you haven’t received the MMR vaccine or believe you only had one but did not have the booster shot, contact your doctor or pharmacy now. You can get the vaccination at any age, but you do need to wait two weeks before you are fully protected from the measles, and you have to wait at least 28 days from the first vaccine to receive the booster shot. People who don’t remember if they were vaccinated should talk with their doctor to determine if they should have a booster shot. Once you are vaccinated for measles, you are protected for life. “Hopefully,” says Dr. Eplee, “This outbreak will raise awareness of the importance of vaccinations and those who aren’t vaccinated will call their doctor or visit their pharmacy to get the vaccine.”
If you haven’t been vaccinated, do your best to avoid contact with people who do have measles. “It is very contagious, and the virus can live on inanimate objects for hours,” according to Dr. Eplee. That means you can touch a shopping cart that was touched by someone with measles hours before and still get it. Around 9 out of 10 people who have not been vaccinated will get measles if they are near an infected person.
If you do start showing signs of measles (more on this below), contact your doctor. Although there isn’t any medication to get rid of the illness, they may be able to help with symptom control and monitor the situation for possible complications.
Early warning signs
When most people think of measles, they think of the rash that usually accompanies it. This rash is reddish-brown and often starts on the forehead and can spread to the rest of the body. According to Eplee, some of the early signs of measles include:
- Non-specific unwell feelings
- Small white bumps in your mouth
- Runny nose
- Red eyes
The rash usually appears about three to five days after symptoms first appear but you can spread measles to others up to four days before symptoms appear. People with measles are treated with plenty of fluids, bed rest and non-aspirin fever medications. If you or your child has measles, you or they should stay away from other people until you make a full recovery and all symptoms are gone.