With measles cases on the rise across the US, experts at the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) are urging the public to follow longstanding public health recommendations by making sure they are up to date on measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination.

As of February 2024, 41 measles cases have been reported in 16 states: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington. By comparison, 58 cases were reported in 2023. 

Measles was declared eliminated in the US in 2000, but cases still occur when international travelers who get measles overseas bring it into the US or as cases spread in US communities with pockets of unvaccinated people.

“Measles is highly contagious and can be very serious,” says NFID president Patricia (Patsy) A. Stinchfield, RN, MS, CPNP, in a release. “It can lead to severe complications including pneumonia, seizures, brain damage, and even death.” 

About 1 in 5 unvaccinated people in the US who get measles will be hospitalized, and 1in 3 out of every 1,000 people with measles will die, even with the best care. Measles is so contagious that if an individual has measles, 9 out of 10 of their close contacts who are not immune will also become infected, according to a release from the NFID. Infected people can spread measles to others from four days before through four days after the rash appears. 

“Even one case of measles raises alarm bells because the disease is so contagious,” says NFID director Kathleen H. Harriman, PhD, MPH, RN, who has supervised public health programs in Minnesota and California and has worked on many measles outbreaks over the years, in a release.

How to Prevent Measles

“The good news is that measles is easy to prevent with safe and effective vaccines,” says Stinchfield in a release. “Getting two doses of MMR vaccine results in 97% protection, providing lifelong immunity.”

In the US, infants normally get their first measles vaccine between age 12-15 months followed by another dose at age 4-6 years. Anyone born in 1957 or later who has not been vaccinated or has not had measles should be vaccinated. 

“If you are not sure whether you were vaccinated,” Stinchfield says in a release, “it is safe to get another measles vaccine, unless you are immunocompromised or pregnant. Talk with a healthcare professional to find out if you should get vaccinated.”

Infection control experts recommend that unvaccinated people who are exposed to measles should receive the MMR vaccine within 72 hours of exposure. “Vaccination is highly effective in preventing measles if given in this window, which allows the person to return to work or school. If not vaccinated, the exposed person should stay home and avoid public settings for 21 days to prevent spreading the disease to others,” says Stinchfield in a release.

There are no specific antiviral drugs currently available to treat measles. Severe measles cases among children, including those who are hospitalized, may be treated with vitamin A, according to an NFID report on vitamin A for the management of measles in the US.

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