Measles were once a common childhood disease which is not seen as commonly anymore due to effective vaccinations. Measles are caused by a virus known, quite appropriately, as the measles virus. This virus is part of a category of viruses called the paramyxoviruses. Other viruses in the same general category include: mumps, respiratory syncytial virus, and parainfluenza virus. Complications due to a measles infection can be quite serious, however this infection has become somewhat rare due to widespread vaccination.
Measles is found worldwide. Due to its highly infectious nature, outbreaks in local regions are common, especially amongst children. Horrible epidemics of measles infections can become a very serious public health issue if the virus is introduced in to a community with little previous exposure or vaccination.
The measles virus is an RNA virus which is transmitted mostly via respiratory droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These small water droplets are inhaled, allowing the virus to enter the newly infected person via the upper respiratory tract. Once the virus enters a new host, there is typically a delay of one to two weeks until the first symptoms become visible.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
The primary symptoms of a measles infection are a very distinctive rash. The rash typically are bright red, with a white central spot. They will first appear on the head and face. As the disease progresses, the rash will move down the body, especially on to the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
Interestingly, once the rash is noticeable, the infected person is no longer infectious to others. Of course, by then they have been passing the virus along to others for several days.
Other symptoms of a measles infection can include a fever, runny nose, coughing and red eyes (conjunctivitis).
Measles infections can be a very serious medical concern. As many as one in a thousand infected persons will suffer an encephalitis. This is an infection of the brain by the virus and can have a mortality rate of up to 10%. Over half of those who don’t die of the encephalitis will suffer permanent damage to the brain.
Measles can also lead to either a primary pneumonia caused by the virus itself, or a secondary pneumonia caused by opportunistic bacteria that invade the weakened immune system.
Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to treat a measles infection once it has been acquired. Most the treatment revolves around supportive therapy – keeping the child comfortable, treating the fever, and preventing the spread to others as much as possible.
VACCINATION AND IMMUNITY
Once you have a measles infection, your immune system is able to make appropriate antibodies that should provide lifelong immunity. This is similar to what happens with a chicken pox infection – it is very rare to suffer from this virus twice in a lifetime. Also, a mother is able to pass on some immunity to a newborn, making measles infections rare in the first six months of life while the infant still retains this maternal protection.
Vaccination against measles has become a routine part of the childhood vaccination process in America and most other western countries. The vaccine itself is a live, attenuated vaccine. This means that a small part of the live virus is given to the child, allowing the child’s immune system to react as if they were infected and mount an appropriate response. This vaccine is usually given as a combination vaccine known as an MMR, which stands for Measles, Mumps and Rubella.
The vaccine should not be given to young children, as the maternal antibody protection can prevent the proper response to the vaccine.
The key to preventing the outbreak of this potentially deadly disease is proper vaccination of the population. If you suspect you may be dealing with a child who has a measles infection, do not hesitate to call your doctor and get the rash looked at. Discuss vaccinations with your doctor when your child is first born. There is virtually no risk involved in vaccination for measles and it can be a deadly mistake to overlook.