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Children and Measles: What to Know to Protect Yourself Against the Current Outbreak

Feb 21, 2024

Following the hospitalization of an infant for measles at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in early December 2023, the Philadelphia area has seen a growing measles outbreak, identifying eight new cases in the past month.

“In the last few decades, widespread vaccination has created herd immunity and drastically reduced measles cases,” noted infectious disease specialist Vakula Atthota, M.D. “Because of this, many don’t know just how highly dangerous and contagious measles can be, especially among the unvaccinated.”

What is measles and how contagious is it?

Measles is a highly contagious, airborne viral infection spread through respiratory droplets created during a cough or a sneeze. The virus can linger in the air for up to two hours.

“Measles is one of the most infectious diseases we know about—much more contagious than COVID-19,” said Dr. Atthota. “More than 90 percent of people exposed to this virus who are not immune can become infected.”

How to protect yourself from measles

There is no specific antiviral medication available for measles, but vaccination with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is highly effective in preventing measles and reducing the risk of complications. The CDC recommends all children get two doses of the MMR vaccine, the first dose between 12 and 15 months and the second between 4 and 6 years.

“Even just one dose is 93 percent effective at preventing measles, according to the CDC, and two doses is nearly 97 percent effective,” said Dr. Atthota. If you never got vaccinated as a child, it’s not too late. Any unvaccinated adult lacking evidence of measles immunity should receive two doses of the MMR vaccine, with the second dose administered at least 28 days after the first.

What to do if you’re exposed

Measles symptoms may appear within two weeks after exposure, initially presenting as flu-like symptoms (high fever, cough, watery eyes, and a runny nose). After two or three days, look out for small white spots inside the mouth or, a few days after, a red rash that starts on the face and hairline and spreads downward to the neck and legs.

If you’ve been exposed and have any symptoms, you must isolate and contact your doctor immediately. To prevent exposing others, do not visit your doctor’s office without notifying them.

“In the midst of this outbreak, we urge area residents to get the MMR vaccine if they haven’t already,” said Dr. Atthota. “It’s the best way to keep yourself safe from this infection.”

To schedule an appointment for you or your child to receive the MMR vaccine, call 1-800-INSPIRA.

Topics: Children's Health, Health and Wellness