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What you need to know about measles

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  February 25, 2014 10:43 AM

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Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 11.36.55 AM.pngIf you happened to go shopping at the Trader Joe's in Framingham on February 15th or 16th, you might have been exposed to measles.

That's the message of a recent public health alert. These kinds of alerts are becoming increasingly common; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 189 people had measles in 2013. This may not sound like a lot, but it's the second biggest number of cases since the disease was eliminated here in the US in 2000. Of those 189, 28 percent caught it one of the many countries around the world where measles has not been eliminated--and spread it to other people here.

So whether or not you shop at Trader Joe's in Framingham, it's good to know the important facts about measles. Here's what you should know:

It's really contagious. With most infections, being exposed doesn't mean you will necessarily catch it. However, if you aren't immune to measles (from vaccination or having had measles) and you are exposed, you have a 90 percent chance of getting it.

It's spread by droplet from coughs and sneezes. So, mostly you're in trouble if you are near a sick someone. But the virus can live in droplets on surfaces for up to 2 hours--so if the sick someone sneezes on their hands and then touch a doorknob (or a package of cookies at Trader Joe's) and you touch that doorknob (or that package of cookies) you could be exposed too.

People are contagious before people know they have measles. People with measles are contagious not just after they have the rash, but for four days before they get it. That's the problem with so many infections: you can spread them before you know you are spreading them. That's particularly problematic with measles, because the early signs can be confused with lots of illnesses...

The first signs of measles are the 3 C's: cough, conjunctivitis (pinkeye) and coryza (runny nose). There may be fever, too. All of which could be caused by lots of common viruses that aren't measles, so some people may ignore these signs. If you or your child has them, don't ignore them. Call your doctor. Better safe than sorry.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 11.39.30 AM.png
The rash comes next, starting on the face and moving down. The rash is red or reddish-brown spots, and it spreads all over the body.

There is no treatment for measles. All we do is what we call "supportive care", like fluids and medications for fever and rest. We also watch for and treat complications, because they can happen. Of those who get measles, 1 in 10 may get an ear infection, 1 in 20 may get pneumonia, 1 in 1000 may get encephalitis (when it affects the brain) and 1 or 2 out of 1000 may die. 

Immunization works. We give two doses starting at 12-15 months (the second is usually given at age 3 or 4 years but we can give it sooner--we can give the first dose sooner, too, if needed). Adults may need booster doses--check with your doctor to find out. The MMR vaccine does not cause autism; some people worry about this because of a study published years ago saying there was a link. The study was discredited, the journal retracted it, and the author lost his license to practice medicine, but the worry still lingers. Please talk to your doctor if you have any questions! 

To learn more about measles and how to recognize it and prevent it, and to learn more about the measles vaccine, check out the Measles page on the CDC website.


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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