What Parents Need to Know & How Vaccines are Key

What Parents Need to Know & How Vaccines are Key

Adapted by Washington Parent staff from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thanks to a strong childhood vaccination program, measles was declared eliminated from the United States in 2000. Although overall childhood vaccination rates remain high in the U.S., measles still occurs frequently in other parts of the world. That is especially true right now. The World Health Organization has noted a significant increase in measles cases worldwide, with a 30-fold increase in Europe. This includes popular international tourist destinations for Americans, like England.

Measles can easily come to the United States by way of unvaccinated travelers, and measles cases have been increasing around the country. This most commonly happens when people who live in the United States visit countries where there are measles outbreaks. Once someone gets measles and returns to America, measles can spread if people in their community aren’t up to date on their vaccinations.

Per CDC measles cases and outbreak statistics updated weekly, just over half of the approximately 100 measles cases in the U.S. this year as of late March are children under 5 years old.  And 68% of those young children were hospitalized for measles.

Top 4 Things Parents Need to Know about Measles

1. Measles can be serious.

Measles can be serious.

Some people think of measles as just a little rash and fever that clears up in a few days, but measles can cause serious health complications, especially in children younger than 5 years of age. There is no way to tell in advance the severity of the symptoms your child will experience.

  • About 1 in 5 people in the U.S. who get measles will be hospitalized
  • 1 out of every 1,000 people with measles will develop brain swelling, which could lead to brain damage
  • 1 to 3 out of 1,000 people with measles will die, even with the best care

Some of the more common measles symptoms include:

  • high fever (may spike to more than 104° F)
  • cough
  • runny nose (coryza)
  • red, watery eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • rash (3-5 days after symptoms begin)

2. Measles is very contagious.

Measles is very contagious.

Measles spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 9 out of 10 people around him or her will also become infected if they are not protected. Your child can get measles just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, even up to two hours after that person has left. An infected person can spread measles to others even before knowing he/she has the disease—from four days before developing the measles rash through four days afterward.

3. Your child can still get measles in the U.S.

Your child can still get measles in the United States.

Measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000 thanks to a highly effective vaccination program. Eliminated means that the disease is no longer constantly present in this country. However, measles is still common in many parts of the world.

Even if your family does not travel internationally, you could come into contact with measles anywhere in your community. Every year, measles is brought into the United States by unvaccinated travelers (mostly Americans and sometimes foreign visitors) who get measles while they are in other countries. Anyone who is not protected against measles is at risk.

The CDC also offers tips for families planning to travel, with spring breaks right now and summer travel on the horizon.

4. You have the power to protect your child against measles with a safe and effective vaccine.

You have the power to protect your child against measles with a safe and effective vaccine.

The best and safest protection against measles is measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. MMR vaccine provides long-lasting protection against all strains of measles. The measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) is part of the national immunization schedule for all children and adults. When both doses of MMR vaccine are given, MMR is 97% effective at preventing measles.

Your child needs two doses of MMR vaccine for best protection:

  • The first dose at 12 through 15 months of age
  • The second dose at 4 through 6 years of age

If your family is traveling overseas, the vaccine recommendations are a little different:

  • If your baby is 6 through 11 months old, he or she should receive 1 dose of MMR vaccine before leaving.
  • If your child is 12 months of age or older, he or she will need 2 doses of MMR vaccine (separated by at least 28 days) before departure.

Another vaccine, the measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) vaccine, which protects against 4 diseases, is also available to children 12 months through 12 years of age.

Sources: National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Measles in the United States – March 2024 and Top 4 Things Parents Need to Know about Measles (NCIRD Division of Viral Diseases)