Measles

Measles is a highly contagious disease that can be life-threatening. Find out what the symptoms are and how immunization can protect you and your family.

Summary

  • Measles is highly contagious – and easily preventable.
  • It affects both children and adults.
  • Two doses of the measles vaccine provide the most effective protection for yourself, your family and the wider community. After one dose of the MMR vaccine, about 95% of people are protected from measles. After two doses, more than 99% of the people are protected.
  • In New Zealand, if you were born in 1969 or later, you can get the measles vaccine for free.
  • Vaccination is particularly important if you are planning to travel anywhere overseas – to protect yourself and to help prevent outbreaks in New Zealand.

Stopping the spread

Measles are a highly infectious airborne virus that affects both children and adults. If you think you have measles, it’s important to call before visiting your doctor to avoid you spreading the virus in the waiting room.

If you’re feeling sick, you should stay away from work, school or public places, to help prevent putting other people at risk.

This also applies if you or a family member aren’t fully immunized and may have been in contact with someone with measles.

By isolating yourself you will help protect vulnerable people including babies, pregnant women, cancer patients and others who are unable to be immunized and for whom the impact of the disease can be devastating.

If you catch measles, you can infect others from five days before the rash appears until five days after the rash appears (counting the day of rash onset as day 1).

Measles complications

Measles can be life-threatening: about 1 in 10 people with measles will need hospital treatment.

Measles can also lead to other complications, including:

  • ear infections (which can cause permanent hearing loss)
  • diarrhea
  • pneumonia
  • seizures
  • swelling of the brain – this is rare but can cause permanent brain damage or death.

Up to 30% of people with measles will develop complications – usually children under 5 and adults over the age of 20.

Measles during pregnancy increase the risk of miscarriage, premature labor, and low birth-weight babies.

Symptoms

The illness starts 7–18 days after you’ve been exposed.

First symptoms

  • A fever
  • A cough
  • A runny nose
  • Sore and watery ‘pink’ eyes
  • Sometimes small white spots on the back inner cheek of your mouth.

Day 3–7 of illness

A blotchy rash that tends to start on your face, behind the ears, before moving over your head and down your body. The rash lasts for up to a week.

What to do if you or a family member has symptoms

 

You should also stay away from work, school or public places, to help prevent putting other people at risk. This also applies if you or a family member aren’t fully immunized and may have been in contact with someone with measles.

Prevention

Measles is one of the world’s most infectious diseases. The best protection against measles is the free measles, mumps and, rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Young children are usually vaccinated at 15 months and 4 years of age.

In outbreak situations, the local Medical Officer of Health can advise that vaccination be given to younger children as follows:

  • the first scheduled dose can be given from 12 months of age, with the second scheduled dose able to be given as early as 1 month after the first
  • in a severe outbreak, an additional dose of measles vaccine can be given from 6 months of age. Babies immunized before they are 12 months old will still need 2 doses according to the schedule (at 15 months and 4 years). 

Catch up on your immunizations

It’s important to be up to date with measles immunization, even if you’re an adult. By being immunized, you will not only be protecting yourself and your family – you’ll also stop the disease spreading in your community.

One dose of MMR vaccine protects about 95 percent of people, and two doses protect about 99 percent.  Because measles is so infectious, two doses are necessary to prevent outbreaks. 

If you were born before then, you are likely to have had the disease as a child and therefore be immune.

Lower immunization rates in the past mean that teenagers and young adults are at greatest risk of catching measles.  People aged 13 to 29 are less likely to have been fully immunized as children.

Who shouldn’t have the vaccine?

You shouldn’t get immunized against measles if you:

  • are pregnant
  • have had an anaphylaxis reaction to MMR or are immunocompromised.

If you think you have been exposed to measles and are unable to have the vaccine, ask your doctor for advice. 

Pregnant women who think they have measles, or have come in contact with someone with measles, must call their general practice or lead maternity carer as soon as possible. If you were immunized against measles prior to becoming pregnant, you are almost certainly protected.

© RMI Ministry of Health and Human services

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