Preventing Measles

March 03, 2019


Measles outbreaks in Washington state have been in the news, but outbreaks have also occurred in our neighboring state. The Centers for Disease Control lists that there are outbreaks in the Rochester, N.Y., area, in the county north of New York City and in New York City itself along with outbreaks in parts of Texas and Illinois.

Outbreaks are linked to travelers who visit countries outside of the United States where large measles outbreaks are occurring, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Though not common in our region or the United States, measles is common in many parts of the world.  When someone who is not vaccinated travels, they risk getting infected and bringing it back to others who are not vaccinated.

What are measles? Measles is a very contagious disease caused by a virus. It spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Measles starts with fever. Soon after, it causes a cough, runny nose and red eyes. Then a rash of tiny, red spots breaks out. It starts at the head and spreads to the rest of the body.

“Measles can be prevented with MMR vaccine,” Megan Bussard, PharmD, Director of Value Based Healthcare Operations, Penn Highlands Healthcare, said. “The vaccine protects against three diseases: measles, mumps and rubella.”

The CDC recommends children get two doses of MMR vaccine, starting with the first dose at 12-15 months of age, and the second dose at 4-6 years of age. Some children may also get MMRV vaccine instead of MMR, which protects against measles, mumps, rubella and varicella/chickenpox at 12 months through 12 years of age.

MMR vaccines are very safe and effective. Two doses of the vaccine are about 97 percent effective at preventing measles, and one dose is about 93 percent effective.

Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, an estimated 3-4 million people got measles each year in the United States. Of these, approximately 500,000 cases were reported each year to CDC; of these, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized and 1,000 developed brain swelling from measles. 

Since then, widespread use of measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99 percent reduction in measles cases compared with the pre-vaccine era. However, measles is still common in other countries. Unvaccinated people continue to get measles while abroad and bring the disease into the United States and spread it to others.

So what if you are an adult who hasn’t been vaccinated? What if you don’t know if you were vaccinated? 

“Adults who do not know if they have had the vaccine should get at least one dose of MMR vaccine,” Bussard said. Proof of vaccinations is documented for children in their medical records and duplicate records are kept by parents. If those records are lost, a blood test can confirm evidence of past immunization or even having a case of the measles.

For those who received a measles vaccine with the killed-measles vaccine, which was available in 1963-1967, they should also consider a blood test. The killed measles vaccines was not as effective as originally thought.

“There is no doubt that vaccinations save lives,” Bussard said. Vaccines don’t just protect the person vaccinated but they also shield the people around them who are have an illness or are too young to be vaccinated, yet. “It’s a community-wide effort.”

As always, if you have questions, call your healthcare provider. If you don’t have a provider, go to www.phhealthcare.org/doctor for a list of our providers or call the Family Medicine Continuity Clinic at 814-503-4305. The Continuity Clinic sees patients of all ages.