Measles is one of the most highly contagious viruses that infects humans, and there are outbreaks occurring in several states including New York, Texas, Illinois, Oregon and Washington. The virus is often brought into the United States by travelers from other countries and each case can potentially cause an outbreak, especially in areas with undervaccinated populations.
Measles is so contagious it can live for 2 hours in the airspace where an infected person coughed or sneezed. It can spread to others for four days before the rash even appears on the infected person. Early symptoms are similar to cold and flu symptoms and patients may not realize they have the virus and are spreading it. If a person has measles, 90% of the people close to that person will become infected, if they are not immune either from getting the vaccine or from having the disease.
Prior to availability of the vaccine, there were an estimated 100 million measles cases and 6 million deaths from measles worldwide every year. With effective immunization programs, measles cases have dropped by 99% in most industrialized countries. Despite the availability of the vaccine, measles remains common in many developing countries and is one of the leading vaccine-preventable killers of children worldwide.
Possible complications of measles include hearing loss, pneumonia, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), severe diarrhea, and death. Death usually occurs due to pneumonia. A few patients may develop a fatal nervous system disease 7 to 10 years after a measles infection, called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). This is very rare, but the risk may be higher for patients who had measles before they were 2 years old.
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Photo depiction of measles virus courtesy of the Public Health Image Library (CDC)