Here's what experts have to say about the measles epidemic, including whether or how it can impact healthy adults.

By Faith Brar
Updated: April 23, 2019
Photo: PhotoByTawat/Shutterstock

If you've read the news lately, you're more than likely aware of the measles outbreak currently plaguing the U.S. Since the beginning of 2019, 626 cases have been reported in 22 states, across the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This spike in illnesses is so abrupt and concerning, that a congressional hearing was held on what to do about it.

The concern isn't unfounded either, especially considering the U.S. declared measles to be eradicated in 2000 thanks to the widespread use of the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The illness hasn't been around for a while, causing a lot of confusion and misinformation on the topic. Some people feel that unvaccinated immigrants are responsible for the outbreak based on what would seem to be racial and political bias. The truth, however, is that most vaccine-preventable diseases like measles have little to do with immigrants or refugees and more to do with unvaccinated U.S. citizens traveling out of the country, getting sick, and coming home infected.

Another school of thought is that contracting measles might be a good thing for someone's immune system, so it's stronger and able to fight off more serious illnesses like cancer.(Yeh-fake news.)

But with all these opinions swirling, experts are reiterating the potential danger in believing those that aren't backed by science because while measles itself doesn't cause death, complications from the illness can.

So in an effect to separate fact from fiction and lend clarity to a confusing and scary situation, we've answered some common measles questions, including how personally concerned you should be.

What Is Measles?

Measles is essentially an incredibly contagious viral infection that can't be treated with antibiotics. If you're unvaccinated and in a room with someone with measles, and they so much as cough, sneeze, or blow their nose in your general vicinity, you have a chance of contracting the infection nine out of 10 times, says Charles Bailey M.D., infectious disease specialist with St. Joseph Hospital in California.

You probably won't know you have measles right away either. The infection is known for its distinct rash and tiny white spots inside the mouth, but those are often the last symptoms to appear. In fact, you could be walking around with measles for up to two weeks before developing any of the telltale symptoms such as fever, cough, runny nose, and watery eyes. "People are considered most contagious three or four days before the rash comes, and three or for days, after," says Dr. Bailey. "So the likelihood that you'll spread it to others without knowing you even have it is much greater than most other similar illnesses." (Related: What's Causing Your Itchy Skin?)

Since there is no treatment for measles, the body is forced it simply fight it off over the course of what's typically a couple of weeks. However, there's a chance you could die as a result of having measles. About one in a thousand people die from contracting measles, usually because of complications that come with fighting the disease, says Dr. Bailey. "About 30 percent of people with measles develop respiratory and neurologic complications that can be life-threatening." (Related: Can You Die from the Flu?)

The worst cases of health complications from measles are when someone develops subacute sclerosing panencephalitis or SSP, says Dr. Bailey. This condition causes measles to stay dormant in the brain for seven to 10 years and randomly reawaken. "This causes an immune response that can lead to seizures, coma, and death," he says. "There's no treatment and no one has been known to survive SSP."

How to Know If You're Protected from Measles

Since 1989, the CDC has recommended two doses of the MMR vaccine. The first between 12-15 months of age, and the second between the ages of four and six. So if you've done that, you should be all set. But if you haven't received both doses, or were vaccinated before 1989, it's worth asking your doctor for a booster vaccination, says Dr. Bailey.

Of course, like any vaccines, the MMR cannot be 100 percent effective. So there is still a possibility you could contract the virus, especially if your immune system has been compromised. That said, getting the vaccinated will still help your cause even if you do contract the virus. "You'll likely have a less serious case of the virus and be less likely to spread it to others," says Dr. Bailey. (Did you know this severe strain of the flu is on the rise?)

While children, the elderly, and those battling other serious illnesses are still at a greater risk of contracting measles, pregnant women need to be extra cautious as well, says Dr. Bailey. Having measles during pregnancy won't cause birth defects, but can lead to premature labor and increase the risk of miscarriage. And since you can't get vaccinated while pregnant, it's best to make sure your immunizations are up to date before you start trying to conceive.

It's also wise to practice extra caution based on where you live. People living in the 22 states that have seen a surge in measles, especially those who are unvaccinated, should seek medical help as soon as they start seeing symptoms. Since the disease is so contagious, even those who are vaccinated have a greater risk of contracting the infection if they live in an area with a higher concentration of measles. So it's important to be mindful of those around you and take precautions like washing your hands frequently and wearing a mask when in high-risk places like hospital waiting rooms, says Dr. Bailey.

Why Is Measles Back?

There isn't one specific answer. For starters, more and more people are being allowed to forego vaccinating their children for religious and moral reasons, causing the downfall of something called "herd immunity" that has protected the U.S. population against measles for decades, says Dr. Bailey. Herd immunity is essentially when a population has built resistance to contagious diseases through high proportions of vaccinations.

In order to maintain herd immunity between 85 and 94 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated. But over the past decade, the U.S. has fallen below the minimum, causing several resurgences including the most recent. That's why places with low immunization like Brooklyn, and areas in California and Michigan, have seen such rapid increase in measles cases and illnesses associated with the infection. (Related: 5 Common Fungal Skin Infections You Can Pick Up at the Gym)

Second, while the U.S. still considers measles to be eradicated (despite its resurgence) that's not the case for the rest of the world. Unvaccinated people traveling overseas can bring the illness back from countries currently experiencing measles outbreaks of their own. That in tandem with the growing unvaccinated population in the U.S. causes the illness to spread like wildfire.

The bottom line is simple: For everyone to be protected from measles, everyone who can get vaccinated would need to do so. "Measles is a completely preventable illness, making its comeback both frustrating and concerning," says Dr. Bailey. "The vaccine is effective and safe, so the best thing moving forward would be to make sure we're all protected."

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