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Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a viral infection (paramyxo virus). It causes cold-like symptoms and a rash, but can also lead to more serious complications.
Measles is usually a childhood infection, which is most common in children aged 1-4 who have not been immunised. However it is possible to catch measles at any age.
Measles is spread via tiny droplets and can be caught via direct contact with an infected person, or through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is highly infectious - the disease can spread from room to room, even if the patient is in isolation.
Once measles is caught there is an incubation period of 1-2 weeks before the symptoms appear. Patients are infectious for up to four days before the rash appears and for five days afterwards.
As the disease is so contagious, a child should not return school until they have made a full recovery.
Symptoms of measles may include the following:
The measles rash appears 3-5 days after the onset of other symptoms, and will fade within another 3-5 days.
At first, tiny red spots appear, which double in size before joining together. The rash begins around the ears and spreads down towards the legs within a day or two.
More serious complications can occur, and some of them can be fatal. These include:
If a woman gets measles during pregnancy it can result in the unborn baby becoming infected and may cause premature birth or even result in the loss of the baby.
There is a highly effective vaccination against measles, which is given to children in combination with a mumps and rubella (German measles) vaccination, known as the MMR vaccine.
The MMR vaccine is administered free of charge to babies aged 12-15 months in Ireland, as part of the Childhood Immunisation Programme. A booster is then given at the age of 4-5, when children begin school.
While the risk of death from the disease is greatest in babies under the age of one, they are too young to receive the vaccine and so must rely on the immunity of others around them.
A single dose of the vaccine prevents measles in over 90% of immunised children. When the second booster dose is given, over 99% of immunised children are protected.
There are very few reasons why a child should not be immunised with the MMR vaccine. Your doctor will advise you if there is a reason why your child should not be vaccinated.
As with any vaccines, side effects can occur with the MMR vaccine. However these are very rare and the small risks associated with being vaccinated are far outweighed by the risks associated with contracting the measles infection.
There have been concerns in recent years over claims that the MMR vaccine is associated with Crohn's disease and autism. However, the original research, which prompted concerns, has since been totally discredited, and the journal in which it appeared publicly apologised for its publication. This research has not been replicated elsewhere.
However unfounded, the publicity surrounding this research led to a decline in the number of parents in Ireland getting their children vaccinated - which left large numbers of children susceptible to infection. The result of this was the measles outbreak in 2000, in which 1,600 children contracted the disease and three died.
Last Reviewed: 30th June 2008