Many people consider measles a disease of the past in the United States. But unfortunately that’s not the case. While measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000 (meaning it no longer occurs year-round), it is still quite common in other countries — including Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Africa — and international travel can result in an infected visitor bringing the disease back into the States.
On average, around 60 people in the United States are afflicted with measles each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of these cases are the result of overseas travelers becoming infected and bringing the virus back home. However, in 2011 the number of cases spiked, to 222. The majority of the cases were in people who had never been vaccinated.
What is measles? It is a highly contagious virus that causes a respiratory infection. Initially most people start to become ill about one to two weeks after they are exposed to the virus. The first symptoms may include a cough, runny nose, red and watery eyes, and tiredness. After a few days a rash appears, and the fever may spike to 104 degrees or higher. Infected people are highly contagious for as many as four days before they become sick and as many as four days after. The illness typically lasts about eight days.
Most people recover without requiring treatment, but some can develop complications such as pneumonia, ear infections, hearing loss and encephalitis (infection around the brain). Death can occur in one to two people per 1,000 who become infected.
How do I catch the measles? The virus is spread through the air by small droplets that a sick person may sneeze or cough into the air. They may also leave these droplets on surfaces they touch, such as a doorknob or table. When we breathe these droplets or touch a surface that has these droplets on it, we can easily become infected when they reach our nose or throat. This is a very efficient way for a virus to spread, and about 90 percent of unvaccinated people exposed to a person who has measles will become infected.
Should I be concerned? If you were born before 1957, you are probably immune, as most people had measles during their childhood. If you were born after 1957, make sure that you have been vaccinated with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. The current childhood schedule recommends having two MMR vaccines at 1 and 4 years of age. Most people who have had two of these vaccines are not capable of contracting or spreading measles.
Prevention: Good hand washing is always important to help minimize the spread of any disease. If you do get sick, be kind to your community by staying home until your fever goes away and you are no longer contagious.
If you plan to travel overseas, it is important to check with your physician to ensure that your vaccines are current. This includes not only the vaccines commonly given in the United States such as the MMR, polio and tetanus, but also specialized vaccines that are country-specific. All of these vaccines take time to become effective, so check on your status a minimum of six to eight weeks before traveling.
Remember that you are not only protecting yourself when you get vaccinated but also your family, friends and even strangers you may meet overseas or at home. Since there are no effective medicines to treat measles, prevention is the key. For more information, visit the CDC website at cdc.gov/measles.