“Measles is one of the most contagious viruses we know,” says Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health for Toronto Public Health. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), measles can infect 90 percent of those exposed who are not immunized. It’s transmitted through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, through direct contact, or through mucus or saliva on things like shared cups or toys. If you suspect measles, don’t bring your child into a crowded paediatrician’s office. “Instead, call ahead to ensure the doctor can make sure the office is empty, give your child a mask and protect staff,” says Dr. Dubey. If measles is diagnosed, your child should be kept home for four days after the rash appears to avoid spreading the illness to someone else, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
It typically starts on the face and moves down the body. A fever, cough, runny nose and irritated eyes may also accompany the rash. A doctor can confirm the measles diagnosis with a blood test, urine specimen or nasal swab.
The symptoms should go away in two to three weeks. However, according to the CDC, measles can lead to ear infections, diarrhea or pneumonia. It can occasionally cause complications like encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which can then lead to seizures and even death. About one in 1,000 infected will die from it.
In Ontario, the MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) vaccine is given around the first birthday, with a booster at age four to six years (in some provinces the second dose is given at 18 months). So if you’re late on an annual checkup for a child in that age range, it’s time to make an appointment. Do adults need boosters? They might. If you were born after 1970, you should make sure you’ve received two doses of the MMR vaccine; many will require a booster because they never got their second dose. “If you’re not sure, it’s safe to get a booster as long as you didn’t get the first dose within the last month,” says Dr. Dubey. Pregnant women and those with a compromised immune system should not get the MMR vaccine.
“Measles is now circulating in places that never used to have it, like the United States,” says Dr. Dubey. “The Public Health Agency of Canada is now recommending that babies between six and 12 months of age who are travelling to a place where measles is circulating get the vaccine. A baby who is vaccinated earlier than 12 months will still need to get two more doses later.”
No vaccine is 100 percent effective. That’s because while the shot itself offers good protection for most people, vaccines depend on herd immunity to be effective. High vaccination rates protect those who cannot be immunized, those who haven’t gotten their booster, and those whose bodies do not produce the optimal immune response. “If you’ve had one dose, that provides 85 percent protection; two doses receive 95 percent or more protection. But some people still have what we call vaccine failure,” says Dr. Dubey.
Pain relievers can be used to reduce fever, but since measles is a virus, antibiotics and other medications won’t help. The body has to fight the virus on its own. The best protection against measles is to be vaccinated.