Measles is a serious infectious disease caused by a virus. 90% of people close to an infected person will also develop measles unless they are vaccinated against it.
The measles virus is passed from person to person by coughing and sneezing. The virus can survive for up to two hours outside the body and so could be spread by contact with surfaces such as door handles, or even by droplets in the air.
Measles is a huge problem in developing countries – in 2008 the World Health Organisation estimated that there were 164,000 deaths from measles around the world. Measles is not feared as much in developed countries because vaccination has made it a very uncommon disease, although there have been some outbreaks in recent years due to reduced vaccination rates. Most recently, there were 117 cases of measles in the USA that are thought to have been caused by one infected person visiting a theme park in California. 12 of the cases were babies too young to have received the vaccine.
Measles happens in stages, and symptoms develop between 7 to 10 days after contact with the measles virus. Initially, your baby will develop a high temperature, cough, runny nose and red sticky eyes. Gradually a rash appears inside the mouth (white spots) and then red spots spread from the head down across the whole body. Your baby can have a temperature as high as 104OF (40oC) with the rash, which gradually fades after a few days. Babies and children can have seizures caused by the high temperature (febrile convulsions).
There are several common, serious complications of measles including ear infections (causing permanent hearing damage), pneumonia, respiratory tract infections and diarrhoea. Measles can also cause an acute infection of the brain (encephalitis) that can lead to deafness and intellectual disabilities in children.
About 1 in 20 children with measles will develop pneumonia which can be fatal. There is also a very rare but fatal disease called Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) that develops 7 to 10 years after a person has had measles. SSPE is now rarely seen in countries that routinely vaccinate against measles. Overall 1 or 2 children out of every 1,000 with measles will die from it. The MMR vaccine protects children from the virus that causes measles.