Late last week, the Allegheny County Health Department confirmed that a Pittsburgh woman contracted measles during an out-of-state visit and may have exposed some in the region to the rare infection.
Amesh Adalja, M.D., UPMC infectious disease, critical care, and emergency medicine physician, answers questions about the measles, how it spreads and why vaccination is so important.
Q: What is measles and what are the symptoms?
A: Measles is a virus that causes a highly contagious respiratory disease that is characterized by a blotchy rash all over the body. It also causes a fever, runny nose, red eyes and cough.
Q: What is the treatment?
A: There isn’t a treatment, such as an antiviral drug, for people who have measles. Doctors will offer supportive care, such as intravenous fluids and anti-fever medications, as necessary.
Q: Is it contagious?
A: Measles is highly contagious. It is spread primarily through the larger droplets released by coughing and sneezing, which can typically reach people up to about three feet away. Infected people are typically contagious for about four days before the rash breaks out until about four days after.
Q: What are the complications?
A: Most people who get measles are going to have an ordinary case that does not require hospitalization. However, about 30 percent of infected people can get complications that include pneumonia, and about one in 1,000 infected people will get an inflammation of the brain. Fatal cases occur at a rate of about one to two per 1,000 cases.
Q: Who is most at risk?
A: People who are not vaccinated are most at risk.
Q: Who can get the vaccine?
A: Almost everybody. The measles, mumps, rubella, or MMR, vaccine is first given to children when they are 12 to 15 months old and again when they are 4 to 6 years old. It is safe and offers the best defense against a disease that can be deadly and spread rapidly. The only people who should not be getting the vaccine are those who are severely immunocompromised, pregnant women and children too young to mount a response to the vaccine.
Q: Why are there still measles outbreaks?
A: Unfortunately, an ill-informed, anti-vaccination movement, both in the U.S. and abroad, causes some parents not to vaccinate their children because of fears of autism. Those fears are unfounded. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that shows a link between autism and vaccination. There is a wealth of scientific information that shows the MMR vaccine is safe. When parents do not vaccinate their children, they not only put their children at risk for contracting measles, but they also put babies and people with weakened immune systems within their community at risk.
Q: Can the vaccine wear off and can people who were vaccinated still get measles?
A: In rare cases, the MMR vaccine does not invoke a strong enough immune response in some people to offer sufficient protection against measles. It can also wear off, in rare cases, and is less effective in people who did not get both the initial MMR vaccine and the booster.