5 Things Everyone Needs to Know About Measles

The disease is making a comeback—do you need to be worried?

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Since January 1 of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there have been 68 cases of measles in 11 states across the country, mostly because of an outbreak associated with travel to Disneyland. The organization issued an official health advisory last week in order to “to notify public health departments and healthcare facilities about this measles outbreak and to provide guidance to healthcare providers.”

Concerned? We asked Drs. Jennifer Lighter Fisher and Stephen Morse to weigh in on some must-know facts about the virus.

1. If you’re vaccinated, you don’t need to worry.
The measles vaccination requires two doses, 28 days apart. While one dose is 85 percent effective, both doses are 98 to 99 percent effective, according to Fisher, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center. People who have received both doses—and most have—can consider themselves “protected.”

2. Families with infants should employ “cocoon care.”
The vaccine is not administered until a child is a year old, so the best way to protect newborns is to “make sure that family and friends that surround the infant are vaccinated,” or what Fisher calls “cocoon care.”

3. It looks a lot like the flu—at first.
The first symptom of measles is not the spotted rash everyone recognizes. It starts with common symptoms like fever, runny nose or a cough—since the disease is airborne, these symptoms can transmit the virus before you even realize you’ve contracted it. Then, you might notice Koplik spots—salt-like spots inside the cheek. Only after those spots appear will you see the telltale rash on the face and neck.

4. It’s highly contagious.
So contagious, in fact, “you need a 95 percent level of protection in the population to prevent small outbreaks,” says Morse, professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center. This is known as “herd immunity.” For comparison, a 50 to 60 percent level of protection could prevent a community from a flu outbreak.

Knowing that, if you believe you or your child has contracted measles, do not rush to the hospital, where patient immunity is likely to be low. “They may be infecting other people and cause a large outbreak,” Morse says. “Call first.”

5. There is no cure.
While the measles is almost entirely preventable by immunization, there is no known treatment or cure after contracting the virus. It typically has to run its course—which takes a minimum of one week, but can often be longer. Morse advises treating the measles like the flu, with ample fluids and bed rest—unfortunately over-the-counter or prescription medications can’t do much to lessen its effects.

But don’t panic: “If it’s uncomplicated, and takes a normal course, most people do recover,” says Morse.