What is measles?

Measles is an extremely contagious viral infection and can be more serious than people may think. One in three people with measles develops complications, including ear infections, pneumonia or diarrhoea.

What are the symptoms?

If you have measles, you’ll get the following symptoms...
First symptoms:

  • A fever
  • A cough
  • A runny nose
  • Sore and watery ‘pink’ eyes
  • Sometimes small white spots on the back inner cheek of your mouth.

Day 3 - 7 of illness:

  • A blotchy rash which tends to start on your face, behind the ears, before moving over your head and down your body. The rash lasts for up to a week.

How is it spread?

Measles is very infectious. It’s spread through the air by sneezing or coughing. You only need to be in a room for a few minutes to spread the measles virus through breathing. The virus can remain airborne and on surfaces for one hour. One person with measles can pass it to at least 13 other people who are not immune. People don’t necessarily know they have measles until they feel sick.

People with measles are infectious five days before and until five days after the rash appears.

Who is at risk?

It’s not just babies and young children who can get measles – older children, teenagers and adults who are not fully immunised are also at risk. Adults born before the measles vaccine became available in 1969, are considered at lower risk because they were probably exposed to measles as a child.

Some people who get measles are at higher risk of severe illness or complications. These include:

  • Non-immune pregnant women
  • People with a weak immune system (from illness or medicine), and
  • Infants under 12 months old.

 Non-immune pregnant women

  • Non-immune women who become ill with measles while pregnant are at risk of miscarriage, premature labour and having a low birth weight baby.
  • Pregnant women should not receive the MMR vaccine.
  • If you are pregnant and have had two measles vaccines in the past you are almost certainly protected.
  • If you are not immune, you can ask your close family and friends to help protect you and your unborn baby by being vaccinated against measles (if they are not already immune).
  • Non-immune pregnant women who think they have measles, or have come in contact with someone with measles, must call their doctor or lead maternity carer as soon as possible. You may also need to go into quarantine or isolation*.

People with a weak immune system

  • Some people are born with a weak immune system and can’t be vaccinated with the MMR vaccine.
  • Some illnesses (e.g. HIV) and medications (high dose steroids, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and other immune suppressing medicines) can weaken the immune system and make people susceptible to measles, even if they’ve had a measles vaccination in the past.
  • People with a weakened immune system should not receive an MMR vaccine.
  • If you have a weakened immune system and think you have measles, or have been in contact with someone with measles, you must call your doctor or specialist as soon as possible.
  • The people in close contact with you (e.g. living in your home) can help protect you by being vaccinated against measles (if they are not already immune).

Children under 12-15 months old

  • Because the first MMR vaccine is not given until 15 months old children younger than this are at high risk of the disease.
  • Infants will have some measles protection passed from their mothers in the womb, as long as their mothers are immune. However, this protection is not long-lasting, and fades between four and nine months. The exact timing is different for every baby.
  • If you think a non-immune child has measles, or has been in contact with someone with measles, please call Healthline (0800 611 116) or your family doctor as soon as possible.
  • The people who are in close contact with your child can help protect them by being vaccinated against measles (if they are not already immune).

How is it prevented?

The best protection against measles is the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. You need two doses of measles-containing vaccine to be fully immunised.

If you were born after December 1968 check your vaccination status, as you may not be fully immunised. If you are not sure, talk to your doctor.

The vaccines are free for children and adults who have not previously received two doses of measles-containing vaccine.

You shouldn’t get immunised against measles if you:

  • are pregnant
  • have a severe allergy or immunosuppressive condition.

If you think you have been exposed to measles and are unable to have the vaccine, ask your doctor for advice.

What to do if you or a family member has symptoms

If you detect a flu-like illness with a rash, see your family doctor or call Healthline on 0800 611 116, for advice as soon as possible.

It’s important to call before visiting your doctor because measles is easily passed on from one person to another. Phoning ahead helps ensure steps are taken to avoid you spreading measles in the waiting room.  You should also stay away from work, school or public places, to help prevent putting other people at risk.

People with measles need to stay away from other people until five days after the rash appears.

If other people in your family are not immunised – they may be advised to stay away from work, school and public places for 14 days to ensure they do not become infected and pass measles to others.

If you think you or your child may be at high risk, and you’ve been in contact with someone with measles, please call your family doctor, maternity carer or specialist as soon as possible for advice.

You are likely to be IMMUNE and safe from measles if:

  • You have received at least one dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This will be recorded in your Well Child/Tamariki Ora or Plunket book, or with your GP.
  • You were born before 1 January 1969. Before 1969, almost everyone caught the disease as a child.
  • You have previously been diagnosed with measles. Once you have recovered from measles, your body is protected from future illness.

If you are immune - no action is needed
If you are likely to be immune, simply carry on life as normal.

For more information

  • Call your GP or Healthline on 0800 611 116
  • Phone the Taranaki Public Health Unit on (06) 753 7798 or free phone 0508 834 274
  • Check the Ministry of Health website
*Quarantine is the term used when non-immune, close contacts of a measles case are asked to stay at home until it’s clear they have not caught the illness and can’t spread it to others. Isolation is the term used when a person is confirmed as having measles and must stay at home away from others until they are no longer infectious.

Last updated: Friday, July 12, 2019

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