Measles



Measles, also called rubeola, is a highly contagious * disease of child-hood that causes fever and a rash.

KEYWORDS

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Infectious diseases

Vaccination

* contagious means transmittable from one person to another.

Daniel's Story

Daniel overheard his mother telling a neighbor that one of Daniel's class-mates had come down with measles. The classmate, Bianca, had recently moved from Bangladesh to the United States with her family. "What's measles, Mom?" Daniel asked later. His mother explained that measles is sort of like having the flu and a bad rash at the same time. She said that a long time ago, everybody used to get the disease, and sometimes people died of it. But now most children get shots to protect them against measles, and it is very rare. What Daniel's mother told him is right. Measles is rare in the United States and other wealthier countries that can provide immunization for children. But in poorer countries, like Bangladesh, where many children do not get the shots, measles is still a disease that people fear.

What Is Measles?

Measles is caused by a virus that is spread directly from person to person. Animals do not spread measles. Once the virus finds its way into a person's body, it attaches to the lining of the respiratory tract, which consists of organs like the nose and throat that carry air into the lungs. In the respiratory tract, measles causes cough and a runny nose. It also spreads to other parts of the body. As the body senses the invading virus, it responds by raising body temperature, causing a fever. Measles also causes a sore throat, tiny white blisters with red rings around them that appear inside the cheeks, and a red skin rash. A person who has measles may find that his eyes become red and very sensitive to light, and the rash may become slightly itchy.

Measles
Throughout History

Because measles needs people to spread, it probably first became a menace with the building of large cities. It was already established around the Mediterranean during the time of the Roman republic. European explorers brought measles to the Americas about 500 years ago, and along with smallpox and other infectious diseases, measles was responsible for destroying a large part of the Native American population. Before a vaccine was developed for measles in 1963, between 7 and 8 million children around the world died of the disease every year. It still kills around 1 million children annually, mostly in Africa. For this reason, the World Health Organization has called for a worldwide effort to eradicate measles by 2005.

Is Measles Serious?

Measles can make a person feel very sick, and it can become serious and involve a number of the body's organ systems. When that happens, we say a person has developed complications. The complications of measles include ear infections and pneumonia (noo-MO-nya), an inflammation of the lungs. Inflammation of the brain, called encepha-litis (en-sef-a-LY-tis), is another complication that can be life-threatening. Measles is most dangerous to infants, very young children, pregnant women, and people whose immune systems are weak, for example, from malnutrition or from other diseases.

Teenaged girls line up for inoculation against measles. © Zeva Oelbaum/Peter Arnold, Inc.
Teenaged girls line up for inoculation against measles.
© Zeva Oelbaum/Peter Arnold, Inc.

How Does a Person Get Measles?

Measles is probably one of the most infectious * diseases known. It occurs mostly among children, and mostly in crowded areas, like cities. A person catches measles by breathing in infected droplets that someone with the disease has coughed or sneezed out. It is possible to catch measles simply by being in a room where another person who has the disease has been. For this reason, measles often spreads quickly in a family or in a classroom. People who have measles are infectious from about 5 days after they have been exposed to the virus until 5 days after the rash appears.

Recognizing Measles

Daniel's classmate Bianca began to feel sick in school. When her mother came to pick her up, Bianca was hot and flushed. Her throat felt scratchy, her nose was running, and when she and her mother went out to the car, the light hurt her eyes. Back at home, Bianca's mother called the doctor. The nurse told her that Bianca probably had measles and that she should stay at home to avoid spreading the disease. Sure enough, a day or so later, a blotchy red rash appeared on Bianca's forehead and behind her ears and gradually spread from her head to her toes. Bianca stayed in bed, feeling sick and too uncomfortable to read or to watch television. Four or five days later, her temperature was back to normal, and the red spots were fading. She was herself again.

It used to be easy for the doctor to tell that a person had measles, but today fewer doctors have actually seen a case of measles since the wide-spread use of the measles vaccine. If there is any doubt about what is making a child sick, there are several tests that a doctor can order to be sure that a person has measles.

* infectious means able to spread to others.

What Is the Treatment for Measles?

Most of the time measles gets better by itself, and there is no treatment for it. Drinking a lot of water and fruit juice will help to replace fluids lost through the skin due to the high fever. Complications like ear infections and pneumonia usually are treated with antibiotics, which are medications that destroy the bacteria that cause these infections. Once measles has gone away, people can do all the things they did before they got sick. Children can usually go back to school about 5 days after the rash and fever are gone.

What Is the Best Way of Preventing Measles?

The best way to prevent measles is to be vaccinated against it. Vaccination is a way of introducing the body to a harmless form of a disease-causing organism, so that when the body encounters the organism in the future, it will be able to recognize it and fight against it. Once people have had measles, they will never get it again. But because complications can occur, it is safer to be vaccinated than to catch measles. Measles vaccine is an injection that is usually given twice: first to infants between 12 and 15 months of age, and again before the child starts kindergarten or the seventh grade. People who have not been vaccinated and know they have been around someone who has measles can be given a shot of immune globulin, which contains antibodies from the blood of other humans that can help fight infection. This treatment also helps to protect people who cannot be vaccinated, for example, pregnant women, or people who have serious allergies to eggs, which are used to produce the vaccine. Doctors and other health professionals can answer questions about who should or should not be vaccinated.

See also
Ear Infections
Encephalitis
German Measles (Rubella)
Pneumonia
Viral Infections

Resources

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), located in Atlanta, Georgia, posts a fact sheet about measles at its website.
http://cdc.gov/nip/vaccine/nip-mmr.htm

The World Health Organization (WHO) posts a fact sheet about measles at its website.
http://www.who.int/gpv-dvacc/research/virus/htm

KidsHealth.org posts a tutorial called Childhood Infections: Rubeola (Measles). Helpful information for parents about measles from The Nemours Foundation.
http://kidshealth.org/parent/common/measles.html

User Contributions:

Report this comment as inappropriate
Jul 24, 2010 @ 1:13 pm
I was told that the man who raised me could not be my father, because when he was a child he was infected with measles. My question to you is can a man really become sterile from having measles as a child.

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