What you need to know about measles

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  Published on Wednesday, 17 July 2019

What you need to know about measles

Library Home  >  Health, Wellbeing & Nutrition
  Published on Wednesday, 17 July 2019
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Measles has been in the news recently, and with good cause. There has been a 30 per cent increase in measles cases globally – with places like Madagascar, the Philippines, the Ukraine, Venezuela, Brazil, Italy, France and Japan facing serious outbreaks.

Closer to home, New Zealand has seen a large spike in measles cases, and although Australia was declared 'measles-free' in 2014, we've seen a rise in measles cases too as locals and tourists arrive from overseas.

To get a sense of how serious measles is and the powerful effect of vaccination, let's look at the top five things you should know about measles, according to Dr Tom Snelling, Director of the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases.

1. Measles is incredibly infectious

In fact, measles is one of most highly contagious diseases and it is transferred from person to person through tiny airborne particles. These droplets can linger in the air for one or two hours after a measles-infected person has left the area, with no direct contact needed to spread the virus. Dr Snelling says, "Just being in the same room is all it takes".

2. Get both doses of the measles vaccine

It's strongly recommended that all children have their first measles vaccination when they are 12 months old, followed by their second dose at 18 months. Although a single dose of the vaccine provides about 90 per cent protection, the follow-up dose is vital to provide full protection.

3. You're unlikely to get measles twice and some groups are at a higher risk of the disease than others

The good news is that if you've had measles, you will have developed immunity and are extremely unlikely to get it a second time.

Some groups are at a higher risk of contracting measles than others. Adults born before 1966 are considered very low risk, since measles was commonly contracted in childhood. While people born between 1966 and 1983 are considered high risk, as Dr Snelling explains, "They probably didn't have measles [as a child] and may have only ever received one dose of the measles vaccine". Many parents of young children fall into this age bracket, and if you do, Dr Snelling recommends that you visit the doctor and have your second dose.

When it comes to infants and young children, he says that, "Young babies are partly protected from measles by the antibodies that are passed to them from their mum, but these antibodies wane over the first year of life and babies must be vaccinated on time at 12-months-old to ensure protection as they get older".

4. All travellers should check their vaccination records

Although recent cases of measles have been brought into Australia by travellers returning from developing countries, especially in Asia and Africa, Dr Snelling says that developed nations aren't immune from the disease.

In 2014, a whopping 52 cases of measles originated from Disneyland in California over a just a few days, and Dr Snelling says that, "No matter the destination, all travellers should check their immunisation records and ensure all recommended vaccinations are up-to-date before heading away – planes, buses and airports all provide the perfect environment for the measles virus to spread".

5. Measles should not be underestimated

Although measles is sometimes downplayed as a common childhood illness, there are very real dangers associated with the virus.

Dr Snelling explains, "Most people experience the common symptoms of a runny nose, cough, red eyes and rash, and other complications can develop such as ear infections and pneumonia.

"But the most dangerous and life-threatening complication of the measles is encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. This is rare, occurring in around one of every 1,000 cases, but encephalitis can cause irreversible damage to the nerve cells in the brain.

"Unfortunately, in the most severe cases, children deteriorate in the years following the initial infection and don't survive. Vaccination against measles is the only way to prevent this".

This is sobering news and as measles cases continue to spike around the world, it's very important to ensure that your family has had both doses of the measles vaccine.

What is the World Health Organisation concerned about?

When two doses are given, the measles vaccine is incredibly effective in stopping the disease in its tracks, but there is concern about vaccine hesitancy around the world.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global health threats of 2019 and says, "The reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases".

Although WHO acknowledges that the spike in measles cases globally is not 100 per cent due to vaccine hesitancy, it does recognise that, "Some countries that were close to eliminating [measles are seeing] a resurgence".

To put things into perspective, the Telethon Kids Institute says that before 'Widespread vaccination in 1980, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths around the world each year,' so it really is important to be vaccine proactive, rather than hesitant.

Further Reading

To see the symptoms and general treatment for measles click here.

To read about child care and vaccination requirements, click here.

This child care article was last reviewed or updated on Monday, 30 December 2019

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