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Measles: What You Need to Know About the Vaccine

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases caused by a virus, and it can cause serious problems. The safest, most effective way to prevent getting measles is to get the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine.

Vaccines are an easy, inexpensive way to protect ourselves, our children and one another. If you’re unsure whether you’re protected from measles or you want to understand the disease and its vaccine before you or your child get vaccinated, here’s what you need to know.

Measles is back because of the spread of misinformation.

Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but there are nearly 1,000 confirmed cases across the country so far in 2019. This disease’s rebirth is the result of people trusting unreliable sources and deciding not to vaccinate.

It only takes one person infected with measles crossing paths with a group of people who have not been vaccinated to start an outbreak.

  • The good news is measles can be eliminated again because it can only be spread by humans and there’s a safe, effective vaccine.
  • The bad news is you can get the virus without even coming in contact with someone who is infected.

People can be hospitalized and die from the measles.

One in four people with measles will be hospitalized, and one or two out of every thousand who get it will die, according to the CDC. Before the vaccine, more than 3 million people were infected with measles each year. Besides saving lives, the vaccine also decreases disabilities that can occur from complications of the disease.

Complications of measles can include:

  • ear infections
  • croup
  • diarrhea
  • pneumonia
  • encephalitis (brain inflammation)

There is no treatment for measles, so your health care provider can only treat symptoms. And considering there’s a safe, effective vaccine for measles, serious complications and deaths caused by the disease are preventable tragedies.

People can infect others without knowing they have measles.

Someone infected may be contagious for days before symptoms develop. The incubation period (time between catching the virus and symptoms appearing) is about 10-12 days.

Since the virus can float in the air for up to two hours after someone who’s infected leaves the area, public places, office spaces, and areas for travel are now high-risk areas for measles exposure.

Initial symptoms look similar to a cold, sinus infection or allergies.

Once measles symptoms do show, they can look like those of other common infections:

  • cough
  • fever
  • sore throat
  • runny nose
  • irritated eyes similar to pink eye

The measles’ signature rash follows these symptoms days later, and those infected remain contagious for about four days after the rash appears.

Children should get two doses of the MMR vaccine.

In 1989, the CDC started recommending that all healthy children get the MMR vaccine in two doses:

  • The first dose should happen between ages 12 and 15 months, and allows for immunity in many people.
  • The second dose should happen between ages 4 and 6 years, and results in very high immunity in almost everyone.

Most adults should get a booster.

Experts recommend a booster shot for most adults born after 1957. Immunity from vaccines can wane after several decades so you may need one or two booster shots depending on your medical records.

  • If you’re sure you received all childhood vaccines, one MMR booster should be adequate.
  • If you’re unsure about your vaccination status, then two MMR booster shots at least a month apart is a safe approach.

Before you get a booster, you can get a blood test to check your level of immunity. It’s important to check your benefits plan and talk to your health care provider first though, because this lab test may not be covered the same way your plan covers the preventive booster shot.

Some children and adults cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

  • Adults with immunosuppression or chronic illnesses should discuss vaccines with their doctor first.
  • Children and adults with a weakened immune system or severe illness (leukemia, for example) should not be vaccinated.
  • Pregnant women (and their unborn children) are at high risk from measles, as well, but they cannot be vaccinated until after delivery.

Not getting vaccinated is the riskier choice for everyone.

Measles can be dangerous and damage your immune system long-term. Complications from getting the disease can also cause disabilities.

While some people can experience mild side effects from the vaccine, these are usually signs your immune system is responding to the vaccine and aren’t as severe as the disease and its complications. Typical side effects include:

  • low-grade fever
  • joint aches
  • swelling or redness at the injection site
  • not feeling 100% for a couple of days

Vaccines are inexpensive and accessible.

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee covers the MMR vaccine for members because it’s preventive. BlueCross members can also call the number on the back of their member ID card with questions about coverage of the blood test for measles immunity or other services.

The vaccine is available at many local pharmacies and county health departments, but you should check ahead of time to make sure they have the MMR in stock. Without insurance, the price could range from $60-$92.

People who can’t get vaccinated rely on others for protection.

The only way to prevent outbreaks and protect those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, is for everyone who can get the vaccine to take advantage of that protection.

If there is any concern about a measles outbreak, people with chronic illnesses and especially those who are unvaccinated should avoid public spaces, travel and being around anyone who is uncertain of their vaccination status. Adults and children traveling abroad may need special vaccines before they travel.

Suzanne Corrington, M.D.

Suzanne Corrington, M.D.

Dr. Corrington serves as medical director of care management services for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee where she directs teams and programs related to medical management and quality care initiatives. Before joining BlueCross in 2016, Dr. Corrington worked in emergency medicine, internal medicine for a private practice, and in clinic and hospital services.

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WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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