Measles (Rubeola)

  • Medical Author:

    Dr. Eddie Hooker is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Services Administration at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also an Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Louisville and at Wright State University. His areas of expertise include emergency medicine, epidemiology, health-services management, and public health.

  • Medical Author: Mary K. Bister, MD
  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Childhood Illnesses Every Parent Should Know

What is the history of measles?

Cases of measles were described as early as the seventh century. However, it was not until 1963 that researchers first developed a vaccine to prevent measles. Before the vaccine was made available, almost every child became infected with the virus because it is so easily spread. Before routine vaccination, there were approximately 3-4 million cases of measles and 500 deaths due to measles each year in the United States.

There were initially two types of vaccines developed against measles. One was developed from a virus that had been killed, and the other was developed using a live measles virus that was weakened (attenuated) and could no longer cause the disease. Unfortunately, the killed measles virus (KMV) vaccine was not effective in preventing people from getting the disease, and its use was discontinued in 1967. The live virus vaccine has been modified a number of times to make it safer (further attenuated) and today is extremely effective in preventing the disease. The currently used vaccine is a live attenuated vaccine.

What causes measles? How is measles spread?

Measles is caused by the measles virus (a paramyxovirus).

The measles virus is highly contagious. Measles is spread through droplet transmission from the nose, throat, and mouth of someone who is infected with the virus. These droplets are sprayed out when the infected person coughs or sneezes. Among unimmunized people exposed to the virus, over 90% will contract the disease. The infected person is highly contagious for four days before the rash appears until four days after the rash appears. The measles virus can remain in the air (and still be able to cause disease) for up to two hours after an infected person has left a room.

How does one become immune to measles?

Anyone who has had measles is believed to be immune for life. People who have received two doses of vaccine after their first birthday have a 98% likelihood of being immune. Infants receive some immunity from their mother. Unfortunately, this immunity is not complete, and infants are at increased risk for infection until they receive the vaccination at 12 to 15 months of age.

Who is at risk for getting measles?

Those people at high risk for measles include

  • children less than 1 year of age (although they have some immunity passed from their mother, it is not 100% effective);
  • people who have not received the proper vaccination series;
  • people who received immunoglobulin at the time of measles vaccination;
  • people immunized from 1963 until 1967 with an older ineffective killed measles vaccine.

Is measles deadly?

While measles can be fatal, it has rarely been fatal for the last 20 years in the United States. This is due to the fact that most people were immunized, which resulted in very infrequent outbreaks. However, with increasing numbers of people who refuse vaccination in the U.S., there are likely going to be more complications and deaths from measles in the future. The people most likely to have complications (including death) are those who are malnourished or who have weakened immune systems.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/6/2015

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