Measles is one of the most contagious respiratory diseases in the world that has the potential to be life-threatening. It is caused by a virus & is still common in many countries.

Vaccines approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for the prevention of measles are proven both safe & effective. Most people who get the recommended two doses of a vaccine to prevent measles will have lifelong protection & will never get sick with measles, even if they’re exposed to the virus.

Still, outbreaks in the U.S. continue to occur. One main reason is an increase in measles incidence globally, resulting in unvaccinated people abroad being exposed to the virus & bringing it to the U.S. Another is because of the spread of measles in communities that include unvaccinated people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, before the U.S. measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 3 million to 4 million people nationwide got measles each year. Of those, 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, & 1,000 developed encephalitis (swelling of the brain) because of measles yearly. In the U.S., widespread use of the vaccine has led to a 99% reduction in measles cases compared with before the vaccination program began.

Those who are particularly at risk for measles are people who cannot get vaccinated because they are too young or have certain health conditions. After an infected person leaves a location, the virus can remain in the air & on surfaces for up to two hours & infect other people. Measles spreads so easily that if one person has it, 90% of the people close to that person who are not vaccinated or otherwise immune will also become infected.

Measles, along with mumps & rubella (German measles), can be prevented with the Measles, Mumps, & Rubella Virus Vaccine Live (MMR). The FDA has approved two vaccines, M-M-R II & Priorix, for use in people ages 12 months & older. Children ages 12 months through 12 years may also get the Measles, Mumps, Rubella & Varicella Virus Vaccine Live (ProQuad, also called MMRV). This FDA-approved vaccine also prevents chickenpox. All these vaccines are safe & highly effective.

The CDC recommends that children get two doses of the MMR vaccine, starting with the first dose at age 12 through 15 months, & the second dose at ages 4 to 6 years. Alternatively, for those who receive ProQuad instead of MMR, the CDC recommends that children get one dose of ProQuad vaccine at 12 to 15 months of age, & the second dose at ages 4 to 6 years. A health care provider can help you decide whether to get the MMR vaccine or ProQuad.

Vaccines that Prevent Measles Are Safe & Effective

The FDA plays a vital role in ensuring the safety & effectiveness of all vaccines approved for use in the U.S., including those that prevent measles.

FDA-approved vaccines to prevent measles are safe & effective. Before each vaccine’s approval, data from animal studies & from clinical trials in humans were evaluated by FDA scientists & doctors. Like many medical products, vaccines that prevent measles have known potential side effects. But those are generally mild & short-lived, such as rash & fever.

The FDA pays careful attention in evaluating the quality of raw materials & other ingredients used to make vaccines, the production process, & the methods & procedures for assessing their safety & effectiveness.

The bottom line is that there are safe & effective vaccines that provide lasting protection against measles. These vaccines contain live but weakened versions of the measles virus, triggering your immune system to produce antibodies against the virus without causing you to contract the illness. Should you be exposed to the actual measles virus, those antibodies will protect you against the disease.

Some people are concerned that autism may be linked to the MMR vaccine or other childhood vaccines. This has been refuted. Several organizations in addition to the CDC — including the World Health Organization, the Institute of Medicine (now known as the National Academy of Medicine), & the American Academy of Pediatrics — have conducted multiple studies. All those studies failed to show a causal relationship between vaccines & autism. In fact, one of the largest studies to date, published in March 2019, provided further evidence of MMR vaccine safety, concluding that the vaccine does not increase the risk of autism, or trigger autism in susceptible children.

Who Should Get a Vaccine to Prevent Measles

Measles is caused by the rubeola virus. It spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Measles starts with a fever, cough, runny nose, red eyes & sore throat. Soon after, a rash of tiny, red spots breaks out. It starts at the head & spreads to the rest of the body. If you have those symptoms, see your health care provider for an evaluation.

Measles is not a harmless childhood disease. It’s dangerous & can be life-threatening. Complications include ear infection, diarrhea, brain damage, pneumonia, & death. According to the CDC, of children with measles:

  • 1 in every 20 will get pneumonia.
  • 1 in 1,000 will develop brain swelling.
  • 1 to 3 in 1,000 will die.

Teenagers & adults should also be up-to-date on their vaccines to prevent measles, the CDC recommends.

If you’re not vaccinated, it’s very easy to get infected with measles. People who contract measles are contagious for about eight days: four days before they show any signs of the virus, such as a rash, & four days after they develop symptoms. So, someone with measles might be infecting others without knowing they are sick, & they can be contagious long before they have a measles diagnosis.

Measles typically strikes children but can infect all age groups. Children younger than 5 years & adults older than 20 years are more likely to suffer from measles complications.
Vaccines to prevent measles not only protect children but also other people who can’t be vaccinated, including:

  • Young infants.
  • People with weakened immune systems caused by illness, such as cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

Measles Is a Preventable Disease

There’s no specific treatment for measles. Health care providers can help measles patients by relieving their symptoms & addressing complications, such as bacterial infections.

The most effective measure against measles is prevention through vaccination. For information about how the MMR, MMRV & other childhood vaccines can protect your children, visit FDA’s website & talk to your health care provider.