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Measles Outbreaks on the Rise: How to Protect Your Family and Community

Symptoms to watch for and how to help stop the spread

Published on: April 01, 2024

mom with a sick child looking at their fever and calling the doctor

Although measles is uncommon in the United States, the number of cases across the country is increasing. In fact, the U.S. has already recorded more measles cases in 2024 than the total number of cases in all of 2023. Many other countries are seeing measles outbreaks as well, including some locations that are travel destinations.

On the Pulse sat down with Dr. Danielle Zerr, head of pediatric infectious diseases and medical director for infection prevention at Seattle Children’s, to understand why cases are increasing, why that’s concerning and what you can do to protect your family and the community.

This excerpted post was originally published on the Seattle Children’s On the Pulse blog.
Seattle Children's

What is measles?

Measles is an infection that’s caused by a virus. It spreads easily in people who haven’t completed the measles vaccine series. It’s so contagious that 9 out of 10 people who aren’t vaccinated for measles will get it if they are near someone who is infected with measles.

“Being vaccinated is the single most important step you can take to protect yourself from infection, and the measles vaccine is one of the most effective vaccines we have,” explained Dr. Zerr.

What are the common symptoms of measles?

Common measles symptoms include:

  • Cough
  • Eye redness
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Rash all over the body

People with measles are contagious from four days before the rash starts through four days afterward.

Is measles serious?

In some cases, the rash and fever associated with measles will clear up in a few days. In other cases, measles can cause serious health complications, especially in children ages 5 and under. There is no way to know how serious your child’s symptoms will be if they develop measles.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • 1 in 5 people with measles in the United States will be hospitalized.
  • 1 to 3 out of every 1,000 people with measles will die.
  • 1 out of every 1,000 people with measles will develop brain swelling, possibly leading to brain damage.

Why are measles cases increasing in the United States?

The increase is due to falling rates of measles vaccination throughout the world. The number of kindergartners who had received two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine had remained steady at about 95 percent for many years but those numbers have declined since the pandemic. This is important to note as most U.S. cases of measles in 2024 have been among children 1 and older who have not received the MMR vaccine.

Most modern day measles cases in the U.S. are linked to international travel, where unvaccinated U.S. residents travel and return to the country with infection and then spread to unvaccinated people.

How is measles spread?

Measles is spread by:

  • Breathing in particles or respiratory droplets released into the air when a person with the disease talks, coughs or sneezes.
  • Breathing in the particles or respiratory droplets that contain the virus or having them land on your eyes, nose or mouth. (This can occur when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes.)
  • Touching your eyes, nose or mouth with hands that have touched something that was contaminated with the virus.

After someone with measles leaves an area, the particles or respiratory droplets can stay in the air for up to two hours, making it extremely contagious.

How can I protect my family and community from measles?

Get the vaccine! The measles vaccine is safe and is highly effective at preventing measles. People who’ve had two doses of the MMR vaccine are 97 percent protected from getting measles.

The vaccine is typically given during early childhood, with a first dose between 12 and 15 months and a second dose between 4 and 6 years old. The vaccine can be given to older children and adults if they didn’t get it earlier, so be sure your whole family has received the two doses, no matter your ages.

If you’re planning international travel, make sure that your family is current on all recommended vaccines. Your child’s doctor can adjust the MMR schedule for your child who will be travelling internationally in some cases:

  • Babies who are 6 months or older and will be travelling internationally can get an MMR shot earlier than usual, at least two weeks before travel. Infants who receive a dose of MMR vaccine before their first birthday will then need two more doses of MMR vaccine – one when they’re between 12 and 15 months and another 28 days later.
  • If your child is 1 or older and has only received their first MMR dose, they should get their second one at least two weeks before travel (vaccine doses need to be separated by at least 28 days).

You can protect your community by getting the measles vaccine. Completing the two-shot series helps you protect infants who aren’t old enough to get the vaccine, people with weak immune systems, people who haven’t received two doses of measles vaccine, and pregnant people.

What if my family has been near someone with measles?

Contact your primary care provider for guidance on what to do if you think you may have been exposed to measles. If you have any symptoms, wear a mask and keep your distance from other people while you wait to hear from your provider.

“We all have an important role to play in preventing the spread of measles,” said Dr. Zerr. “If you are worried you might have measles, be sure you call your provider’s office, urgent care or emergency department before you arrive so that the healthcare workers can take steps to prevent the spread of infection.”


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