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How the Measles Vaccine Helps Protect Children

The measles vaccine helps protect kids from severe disease

An increased number of measles cases in the U.S. this year is shining a spotlight on the importance of vaccination. Measles is highly contagious and can lead to severe outcomes in at risk populations, especially newborn babies.

There may be several reasons why there’s more cases popping up. Measles is a vaccine preventable disease, so when there are groups of unvaccinated individuals, that increases the risk of it spreading.

“A common misconception is that if everybody else is vaccinated, then people don't have to vaccinate their child because there's no chance that they will get it,” said Thomas Murray, MD, PhD, associate medical director of Infection Prevention at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital and professor of Pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine. “There can be herd immunity, but if you get pockets of unvaccinated people in a small area, that’s going to be a high-risk environment, even if the rest of the population is highly vaccinated.”

Measles is also present in areas outside the U.S. so an increase in travel after COVID may lead to new exposures. 

What does measles look like?

Symptoms can include:

  • A characteristic rash that starts at the top of the body and spreads down
  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Conjunctivitis or red eye

Complications can include ear infections, diarrhea and pneumonia which can be fatal. It can also result in an infection of the brain which can impact a child’s long-term development and cause impairment in their ability to learn. 

It is recommended all children receive the measles, mumps and rubella or MMR vaccine. The first shot is given when a child is 1, and then they receive a second vaccine at 4-years-old. Children who have not yet received their second dose, but received their initial dose may still have some protection if exposed. Adults who did not get vaccinated as a child can still get vaccinated later in life. The MMR vaccine has been widely researched and shown to be safe and effective at protecting children from a potentially harmful disease. 

Image of the measles rash.

Protecting others from measles

To protect babies who are not yet eligible for vaccination, caregivers should make sure all other family members or visitors are vaccinated.

“Just like with other viruses, make sure that sick individuals are not allowed near the baby until they're feeling better, and so they shouldn't be holding the baby if they have cough and fever,” said Dr. Murray. “Then if you have concerns that the baby's been exposed, there are medicines that the baby might be eligible for, that could reduce the risk of getting severe disease.”

Anyone who believes they have been exposed to measles should contact their healthcare provider right away for guidance before arriving at a healthcare facility for care. Those locations will need to take specific precautions to protect themselves and other patients. Telling other close contacts about a diagnosis will be critical as well so they can be on the lookout for signs and symptoms to help prevent further spread.