Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. Infection usually causes a high fever, runny nose, a cough, red and watery eyes, and small white spots inside the cheeks. Some days after symptoms begin, a rash erupts on the face and upper neck, before spreading to the hands and feet. In rare cases severe respiratory or neurological complications may develop. The course of the disease is more severe when contracted in adulthood.
On very rare occasions, measles can cause the brain to swell, resulting in death. Measles was responsible for the deaths of eight children in Europe in 2011.
Globally, severe measles is more common among poorly-nourished children, especially those with insufficient levels of vitamin A or children with weakened immune systems. Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children globally, despite the availability of safe and effective vaccines.
Targeted vaccination campaigns have dramatically reduced the death rate from the disease yet they require a continued high vaccination rates. Recently the European health authorities have expressed concern over outbreaks across the continent. 30 countries in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) European region reported a marked increase in measles cases with in 2011.
What treatments are available?
The WHO advises that severe complications from measles can be avoided through good nutrition, fluid intake and treatment of dehydration. Antibiotics can be used to treat secondary bacterial eye and ear infections, or pneumonia.
In developing countries, children diagnosed with measles should receive two doses of vitamin A supplements which can help prevent blindness and reduce the death rate.
Is it preventable?
Yes, measles is included in the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. The ECDC has set a target of 95% measles vaccination coverage as this is the level of immunisation needed to achieve what is known as herd immunity (the disease can no longer easily spread as the number of people protected against it too large).
Are the MMR vaccines safe?
Yes, they are.
Health authorities and professional medical bodies recommend that children have two doses of the MMR vaccine.
In recent years, there have been some unfounded concerns about the safety of the MMR vaccine. In particular, you may have heard claims that the MMR vaccine is somehow connected with autism. This notion was based on one thoroughly debunked study published in 1998. That research paper has since been withdrawn and its lead author, Dr Andrew Wakefield has lost his medical license.
Study after study has given the vaccine a clean bill of health and there is no evidence linking the MMR vaccine with developmental disorders like autism. Health authorities in charge of the safety of vaccines and medicines – such as the European Medicines Agency – support this position.
What we do know is that measles is at best a source of avoidable discomfort and at worst a life-threatening virus.