5 reasons why measles is so dangerous

Doctors have a simple message for parents and patients: get vaccinated.
March 11, 2019
A photo of a mom holding a little girl and talking to a care provider at a doctor's office.
An outbreak of measles around the United States has doctors at UCHealth urging parents to get their children vaccinated. Photo by Getty Images.

Outbreaks of measles around the U.S. have health experts worried and on high alert this year with dozens of cases in Washington, New York, Texas and Illinois.

Colorado has had one confirmed case of measles this year. Health officials are relieved that that case so far hasn’t triggered others. That’s because Colorado has relatively low vaccination rates, with one-third or more of toddlers unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated by age 3. And measles is especially dangerous since it’s extremely contagious.

Here are 5 reasons why the measles is so dangerous. (Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

  1. The virus is highly contagious. It can live in the air for up to two hours after an infected person has left an area.
  2. A person sick and contagious with measles may not know they have it. People with measles can be contagious four days before the rash shows up and four days after it’s gone.
  3. Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.
  4. There is no treatment for measles. Patients can also get complications including ear infections and in more severe cases, pneumonia, seizures, inflammation of the brain, known as encephalitis and sometimes, death.
  5. Infants under three months of age cannot get vaccines for measles and other illnesses. People with compromised immune systems, like those who have had transplants, also are at great risk for contracting diseases. Measles is extremely dangerous to vulnerable people including, babies, elderly and sick people.

The Denver adult who contracted measles had traveled outside the U.S., then before seeking care at a Denver hospital, the person spent time in public places in the densely populated Stapleton neighborhood. The disease easily could have spread to dozens of others.

Health officials compare Colorado’s vulnerability to vaccine-preventable illnesses to a tinder-dry forest at extreme risk for wildfires. A simple spark – or one sick person – can quickly trigger an outbreak.

Dr. Heather Holmstrom, a family medicine expert at UCHealth Family Medicine Clinic in Boulder, has a very simple message for all of her patients: get vaccinated.

A photo of Dr. Heather Holmstrom
Dr. Heather Holmstrom

“We eradicated these diseases and now they’re coming back,” said Holmstrom, who is also assistant professor of family medicine at the CU School of Medicine.

Boulder is one of the areas in Colorado with poor vaccination rates. And it’s also an area with a diverse and relatively wealthy population where many people travel around the world. Measles cases are on the rise around the globe. So, increased travel means it’s more likely that Coloradans can bring dangerous diseases home from abroad. Holmstrom spends considerable time educating parents about the importance of vaccines. She also encounters young adults who weren’t vaccinated as children.

“I encourage all young adults whose parents didn’t vaccinate them to get vaccinated,” Holmstrom said.

An 18-year-old high school student testified in Congress recently about his choice to get vaccines. And, a large new study has reaffirmed the findings of several previous studies showing there is no link between vaccines and autism. That myth has persisted for years and spread through online misinformation after a debunked study claimed a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine – or the MMR – and autism.

Holmstrom and her colleagues repeat the message again and again:

“There are no data to suggest a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism,” she said.

“Routine childhood immunizations are really important for protecting every individual child as well as our community,” she said. “People ask me if I’ve vaccinated my own children and I’m always really open with them. My own children have gotten every routine vaccine ever available.”

And, she tells, them, “Yours should too.”

In addition to protecting children from illnesses that can cause deaths and expensive, frightening hospital stays, Holmstrom tells parents they need to think of others in the community.

For instance, if a baby or child is not vaccinated and unknowingly has symptoms of rubella, that child can give the dangerous disease to an unsuspecting pregnant teacher or caregiver.

If a pregnant woman gets rubella, her baby can be born deaf or with heart problems that will cause a lifetime of challenges.

“Parents must do what’s best for the community,” Holmstrom said. “If, for whatever reason, you’re not going to give your own kids the MMR, it’s your responsibility to inform every day care provider or Gymboree teacher. If your kid gets sick and has a low-grade fever, you could make others sick. Parents need to consider the preschool music teacher who might be pregnant.”

People tempted not to vaccinate their children also must think about children and adults who have compromised immune systems. If they get sick, they could become severely ill.

Many people alive today – both doctors and parents – have never seen a person with a disease like polio, measles and rubella that routinely used to sicken, disable and kill people, Holmstrom said.

These diseases are truly frightening and we all must team up to fight them, she said.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.