Many people are surprised to discover that measles is a common cause of death in children worldwide today. Yes, I said today, in the 21st century. In developing areas like sub-Saharan Africa, measles is among the top causes of death in the 6 million children who tragically die every year. Thanks to vaccination and better nutrition, in North America and other developed areas of the world, Measles is now very rare. Recently however, measles outbreaks in North America are occurring at a seemingly increasing rate. Most of these cases are in individuals who have brought the infection from other countries or who are not vaccinated. People that are not immunized are not only at risk for getting measles themselves, but they can also spread it to others in the community. This is why it is important to get vaccinated.
What causes Measles?
Measles, also known as rubeola or red measles is caused by the measles virus. This virus is highly contagious and is spread by droplet or direct contact with droplets from the nose, mouth and throat of an infected person or with articles that have come in contact with nasal or throat secretions. This is similar to how the Influenza virus is spread.
What are the symptoms of measles?
The incubation period or the time between contact and appearance of first symptoms, is between 8 and 12 days. The initial symptoms of measles include runny nose, red eyes and fever. 3 to 4 days later, a red rash develops on the face and spreads to the rest of the body. The rash is not usually itchy, and lasts 4 to 7 days. People with measles are contagious for 4 days before the onset of the rash and up to 4 days after the appearance of the rash. Serious complications include severe lung or brain infections. Those most susceptible to complications and death, include malnourished young children and persons with underlying immune weakness. The death rate of measles is between 1 and 3 per 1000 persons infected. So this is a very serious and potentially deadly infection.
How is measles confirmed?
The diagnosis is suspected by a physician, who on physical examination may see white spots inside the mouth called Koplick spots. However, the definite diagnosis can only be made by a blood test, urine test and nasal swab.
There is no specific treatment for Measles. So this is why prevention through vaccination is the best option. One dose of measles vaccine provides 85-95% immunity and a second booster dose increases that rate to as high as 99%. (The vaccine is given as the Measles-Mumps-Rubella or MMR vaccine).The first dose is usually given after the first birthday and a booster is administered between 4-5 years of age. Anyone diagnosed with Measles should be excluded from school, child care facilities or work until four days after the appearance of the rash. Most of the North American population is protected, either directly from the vaccination, or indirectly because many people have been vaccinated. The more people vaccinated, the less the virus has a chance to circulate among us. This is called herd immunity. Despite this, there have been recent Measles outbreaks across Canada. Most cases are in individuals who have brought the infection from other countries or in those not vaccinated or partially vaccinated. Measles is a reportable disease. Upon reporting, public health officials try to trace source of the virus and potential contacts in an effort to limit the spread as much as possible.