The recent outbreak of the measles across the country has many people—especially parents—concerned, since most of the recent cases include people who were not been vaccinated against measles.
I thought measles was a mild illness. Why sound the alarm now?
Measles used to be a common childhood disease, to the point where it was an almost expected part of growing up. Most children recovered from the measles without complications, but it’s good to note that measles can cause pneumonia and in some instances encephalitis, or even death. Before the days of a viable and effective measles vaccine in 1963, roughly 3–4 million people in the United States contracted measles each year. Of those reported cases, an estimated 400–500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 suffered encephalitis.
Fast forward to 1981, when the number of reported measles cases was 80% less than previous year. Then in 2000, measles was declared eliminated (defined as the absence of continuous disease transmission for more than 12 months) in the United States. This was thanks to the highly effective vaccination program implemented in the country, and a much more effective measles control program in the Americas.
The resurgence of measles that started in 2019 is most likely due to parents choosing to forgo vaccinations for their children; most reported cases have occurred in people 19 years old or younger. The recent measles outbreak began in Washington State, with at least 58 confirmed cases, with roughly one in four kindergartners having not received their needed vaccinations.
Other measles outbreaks have since occurred in New York, Santa Cruz and Butte Counties in California, and the states of New Jersey and Michigan. According to the CDC, as of April 2019, 695 cases of measles have been reported in 22 states. Measles transmission can occur when it reaches a community in the U.S. where groups of people are unvaccinated. (Learn more about the outbreaks.)
This is the highest number of measles cases that have occurred since it was declared eradicated in 2000. Learn more from the CDC.
Why is the measles vaccination important?
Measles is a serious infection, and can’t be treated with antiviral medication. For children that get infected, only the symptoms can be treated.
A measles vaccination gives ample protection against measles, mitigating the most serious complications that come from measles. Mild reactions to the vaccine, such as rash or fever, may occur in rare cases, as the MMR vaccine is a live-attenuated vaccine.
Those with the highest risk during a measles outbreak are:
- Infants who aren’t old enough to get the vaccine
- Pregnant women
- People with poor nutrition or weakened immune systems
Doctors and pharmacists give an injection of measles antibodies to those who are at-risk, or people who have been exposed to measles. This injection is most effective within 6 days of contact, and can either prevent measles altogether or at least lessen the severity of the symptoms.
Do I need a measles booster vaccine?
Since the beginning of the measles outbreak of 2019, a lot of people have been wondering if they need a booster shot of the measles vaccine.
The short answer is that if you received two doses as a child, you don’t need a booster. The CDC considers those people protected for life, and they do not ever need a booster dose. The measles vaccine is good for life if received as a child.
However, if you’re not sure whether you are fully vaccinated or can’t remember, you should talk with your primary care physician to figure out the best course of action.
I’m an adult but only got one dose of measles vaccine as a child. Do I need a second dose?
Measles in adults does occur, but not if you received the necessary shots. According to the CDC, if you were born after 1957 you need at least one dose of the measles vaccine unless a laboratory has confirmed that you had a past measles infection or are immune to measles.
However, there are certain adults who may require two doses, especially adults in certain settings that puts them at a higher risk for measles transmission. These doses should be separated by at least 28 days.
These situations include:
- Students at post-high school education institutions
- Health care personnel
- International travelers
If you’re not sure whether you are up to date on measles vaccine, talk with your doctor.