Many of us are too young to remember when measles was a common disease, but it has been in the news lately, starting with an outbreak in Disneyland and continuing with reports of measles exposure on public transportation in California. Measles was thought to have been eradicated in the U.S. but it is now making a comeback.
Measles is highly contagious, and it has a long incubation period. That means that people may be exposed to measles and not feel sick for several weeks afterward. They will be contagious and able to spread the virus for about four days before they even have a rash. Since they have no symptoms, they don’t know they’re carrying the infection around, and many people can be exposed.
This is one of the reasons that measles outbreaks can spread so quickly. If you get the flu, you might infect one or two people before you get home to bed and stop spreading your germs. A person infected with measles might infect dozens of people.
Measles is also very contagious. The virus is airborne, which means that it gets into the air when someone with the measles coughs or sneezes. The virus can live for hours in the air, and someone else can breathe it in and become sick. Many diseases can be caught only by direct contact with someone who has the virus, but measles can be caught easily by people who simply breathe the same air. Almost everyone who has not been vaccinated will catch measles if they are exposed to the virus.
A person who catches the measles may have these symptoms:
- a high fever
- a rash of tiny spots
- ear pain
Measles can also lead to serious complications, including brain damage and deafness. Measles can even be fatal.
Fortunately, measles is preventable. People who have had the MMR vaccine do not catch measles, even if they are exposed. Vaccination had almost ended measles in America in the 20th century. Unvaccinated children are at risk of catching the measles, and of spreading them. Vaccination can make the measles a memory, not a threat.