Measles: Not Just a Childhood Problem

People of all ages are part of latest U.S. outbreak
Measles: Not Just a Childhood Problem

Measles is not just a kid’s disease. The multi-state measles outbreak that started in California in December has infected patients of all ages – from babies younger than a year to adults well into their 50s.

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The outbreak, which has spread to 14 states, appears to have started when unvaccinated, infected people from overseas traveled to Disneyland, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. The majority of people who have gotten measles since then also were unvaccinated. Currently, one in 12 children in the United States is not receiving the first dose of MMR on time.

Adults need vaccines too

For children and adults, vaccination is the best defense against measles. Babies get their first dose of MMR vaccine when they are a year old and their second before they go to school.

Adults can receive the vaccine too. If you’re not sure if you’ve had the measles or the vaccine, there’s no harm in getting another one to be certain. The vaccine provides protection within about two weeks.

People born before 1957 are generally considered to be immune and do not require revaccination.

One dose of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is usually enough, but there are a few exceptions, says infectious disease specialist Susan Rehm, MD.

“The CDC recommends that college students, people who work in health care institutions and people who are traveling internationally get two doses,” she says. People who were vaccinated between 1963 and 1967 also should receive two doses of vaccine.

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A single dose of the vaccine is about 95 percent effective. A second dose increases the effectiveness to 97 percent, which is important for these high-risk groups, Dr. Rehm says.

If you’re not sure whether you’ve been vaccinated, it’s all right to go ahead and get the MMR vaccine, unless you have a severe immune problem, Dr. Rehm says.

Pregnant women, people who have had organ transplants, those with advanced HIV infection and others with compromised immune systems should not get the MMR vaccine because it contains live virus, Dr. Rehm says.

‘Community immunity’

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases around. It has the ability to live on surfaces and in the air for a full two hours after an infected person leaves the room, so it is possible to catch measles just by walking into a room where an infected person has recently spent time.

Inhaling a tiny amount of viral particles is enough to cause illness, Dr. Rehm says. In past epidemics, it was not uncommon for one patient to infect 20 others.

“If an unvaccinated person comes in contact with the measles virus, there’s a 90 percent chance that person will develop measles,” Dr. Rehm says.

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What’s more, people are contagious for four days before symptoms begin. This is why “community immunity” or “herd immunity” is a critical issue when it comes to measles, Dr. Rehm says.

Herd immunity is the concept of vaccinating a certain number of people in a group to protect everyone and stop transmission of the disease – particularly to those most vulnerable to it, such as pregnant women and immuno-compromised people such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.


Measles starts with a fever, cough and eye redness.  A rash develops within a few days, usually first on the face and then spreading downward to the rest of the body.

Measles can cause minor complications, such as ear infections, and severe complications, including pneumonia, brain inflammation and, in some instances, death.

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