The measles virus is highly contagious and can be easily avoided by getting vaccinated. The debate over vaccines has been around for years, but the recent vote of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) to recommend that children get an extra dose of measles vaccine before they enter kindergarten seems to have stirred up some controversy. The committee is recommending that all children receive a dose of MMR at 5 years old instead of the usual 4, saying this will “reduce the proportion of children susceptible to measles in kindergarten.” Why?
Despite widespread vaccination in recent years, there have been several outbreaks, including some in schools. This year alone, more than half of US states have reported measles cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In December, a group of parents from Dublin, California, purposely spread measles because they believe that too many shots overload children’s immune systems. Their actions created a public health crisis in their area where at least 7 school-children were sent home with a written notice saying to be on the lookout for symptoms of the measles.
Even though these parents’ actions were irresponsible and dangerous, their concerns about not getting enough information on vaccines and vaccine ingredients are shared by many. Some people who oppose vaccination claim that vaccines cause autism and other health problems in children, including allergies and autoimmune diseases. Others believe that natural immunity is better than vaccine-induced immunity.
If you’re debating whether to vaccinate your children or not, read on for more information about measles and the measles vaccine.
Measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases, caused by a virus that can be spread through coughing and sneezing. It is so contagious—90 percent of people without immunity sharing living space with an infected person will catch it—that children are supposed to stay home for four days after the rash first appears, and two weeks after that if they still have fever. Four out of 1000 people who contract measles will die, typically from respiratory problems like pneumonia, ear infections or brain swelling (encephalitis). And one out of 1000 people with measles develop severe brain damage, typically leading to lowered intelligence and social skills.
A person who caught the virus is contagious for four days before they get a rash, so there’s no way to know if you’re getting it from someone who just arrived in the US. Most cases are brought on by international travelers (90% of US cases are among unvaccinated travelers) who don’t realize they’re infectious. People can infect others from four days before their own rash starts through four days after, and the virus can linger in the air for up to two hours after an infected person leaves.
As far as severe complications go, there is no cure for measles. A 2010 measles outbreak in Germany affected primarily unvaccinated children under the age of five. Of the 3,640 confirmed cases that year, 12 died.
Measles is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems due to AIDS/HIV or other diseases. A person who catches measles can be very sick for several months, maybe more.