Measles is back: Know the facts

In the wake of the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland we're reminded that preventable illnesses such as measles, rubella and mumps are not to be taken lightly. They can quickly spread through unvaccinated populations and in some cases are lethal: In every 1,000 cases of measles, one to three children will die. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, measles can also cause a host of serious complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis, which can lead to deafness or brain damage.

How does measles spread?

The measles virus is incredibly hardy; after an infected person coughs or sneezes it can linger in the air for up to two hours. It also has the uncanny ability to spread from four days before symptoms appear in an infected person, to four days after.

In the United States, most infections are spread by unvaccinated travelers returning from countries where measles is more common. Since measles spreads easily in populated areas, it doesn’t take long for the virus to infect other unvaccinated people, which can quickly lead to outbreaks such as the one at Disneyland.  

Measles facts

  • Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, the CDC estimates that approximately 4 million people got measles each year in the U.S.
  • Measles is a serious respiratory disease (in the lungs and breathing tubes) that causes a rash and fever.
  • Measles during pregnancy increases the risk of pre­mature labor, miscarriage and low-birth-weight in­fants, although birth defects have not been linked to measles exposure.

Vaccine facts

  • Getting the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is much safer than being infected with measles.
  • Severe adverse effects of the MMR vaccine – such as immunization-related seizures – are rare.
  • The MMR vaccine does not – and never did – contain the mercury-based preservative thimerosal.
  • The single study that purported to show a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism has been discredited and retracted. In fact, more than 20 epidemiologic studies have reported no association between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorders.
  • High immunization rates in a community will protect those who cannot be vaccinated, including infants under 12 months of age; people with con­ditions such as congenital immunodeficiency, AIDS, leukemia, lymphoma and generalized malignancy; and those receiving treatment for cancer with drugs, ra­diation, or large doses of corticosteroid. This also includes a small percentage of people who did not gain immunity from the MRR series.
  • Oregon has some of the lowest vaccine rates in the United States, potentially exposing many children and communities to disease.

Resources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and American Academy of Family Physicians