How to prevent the measles

May 2, 2019

The number of people in the United States infected with measles, a highly contagious virus, continues to rise.

So far in 2019, 704 individuals in 22 states are confirmed to have measles, and the majority of those who got the measles were unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In Colorado, one case has been confirmed.

Outbreaks in the United States are linked to travelers who brought measles back from other countries such as Israel, Ukraine and the Philippines, where large measles outbreaks are occurring, according to the CDC.

“Luckily, Colorado has not had a significant number of cases like they have had in New York and Los Angeles, and the state of Washington, but I believe we are highly vulnerable and will see cases. The risk is certainly there,’’ said Dr. Michelle Barron, medical director for Infection Control and Prevention at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus. She is also professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

International travelers

Barron said that while Colorado does not have the same volume of international travelers as other states currently having outbreaks, she believes Colorado could see more measles cases.

“It’s really just a matter of time for Colorado and hopefully, when we do see it, we would be able to contain it quickly,’’ Barron said.

Measles is  among the most contagious viruses and the likelihood of getting the measles if you have not been vaccinated and are near someone who is already infected is all but certain.

A photo of Dr. Michelle Barron
Dr. Michelle Barron

“When someone coughs, spits, or sneezes, the virus becomes airborne – suspended in the air. Let’s say you are in line with me at the grocery store and I have measles and I am coughing or sneezing. The virus can hang out in the air for up to two hours after that and you can then breathe in the virus. If you are not protected by the vaccine, it can then infect you. The CDC estimates that nine of 10 persons that lack protection to measles will develop measles infection if exposed to a close contact,’’ Barron said.

Low rate for vaccinations

Colorado is among the states that have a low rate for vaccinations protecting against measles. Many parents have opted not to vaccinate their children because of a fear that the vaccine causes autism. Barron said there is no reason to fear the vaccine.

“There’s no science that indicates the MMR vaccine causes autism. The original papers that purported an association between the MMR vaccine and autism have been discredited and have been removed from the journals because the science was completely false,’’ Barron said.

A photo of someone with the measles who is receiving ointment.
Measles appear as a red rash. Photo by Getty Images.

UCHealth Today asked Dr. Barron to answer questions to help patients protect themselves against the virus.

Q: What should patients do?

A: The first step is to review vaccination records for you and your children and look for MMR – Measles, Mumps and Rubella. Does the record indicate whether you had that shot? If so, did you get one or two shots?

Q: Should patients have one or two MMR shots?

A: People who were born prior to 1957 are considered immune. If you were born between 1957 and 1989, you may have only had one shot. You should ask your doctor to either perform a blood test that determines whether your body is protected from the measles virus and whether you need another shot – a booster shot, or simply opt to have an MMR shot without the blood test. If you were born in 1989 or after, you probably have had two shots but it’s a good idea to verify this.

Q: What if a patient was born after 1989 and has had only one shot?

A: See your doctor. Your doctor can perform a blood test to check to see if you need to be protected from the measles virus and whether you need another shot. Or, patients can simply opt to have an MMR shot without the blood test. There’s no danger in receiving an additional vaccination.

Q: What if a patient doesn’t know if he/she had the MMR vaccine?

A: Your doctor can order a blood test to check to see if you need to be protected from the measles.

Q: How long does it take for the vaccination to protect against the measles?

A: About one week.

Q: After receiving the first shot, how long is the wait to receive the second shot?

A: No earlier than 28 days after the first dose.

Q: If exposed to the virus, how long does it take before signs and symptoms of the measles appear?

A: Seven to 21 days.

Q: What are symptoms of the measles?

A: Most people get a fever, cough, runny nose or red eyes at first. A rash that looks like red bumps appears on the chest and can appear on the arms and back. Characteristic spots can develop in the mouth. These spots often look like white spots in the back of the throat.

Q: Are measles dangerous?

A: According to the CDC, some people may suffer from severe complications, such as pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). They may need to be hospitalized and could die.

  • As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children.
  • About one child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or with intellectual disability.
  • For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.
  • Measles may cause pregnant woman to give birth prematurely, or have a low-birth-weight baby

Q: What should you do if you or a family member might have measles?

A: Stay at home. Don’t go to work, school or day care. Call your doctor or your care provider.

Q: What states have reported cases of measles in 2019 or are having outbreaks?

A: According to the CDC, the states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington.

To schedule an appointment with your doctor online, click here.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.