By Wendy Hunter, M.D.
As measles has spread to 14 states (and more than 100 people) already this year—and it's only February—news reports only tell part of the story about vaccination and risks of exposure. Here's what concerned parents need to know.
Measles is hard to diagnose early.
Just like a cold, early symptoms are fever, fatigue and loss of appetite; followed by cough and red, watery eyes. Only after about three days does the classic rash appear on the head and progresses down the body.
Measles is highly contagious.
Infectious measles droplets persist up to two hours after the infected person has left an area. And since the contagious period is long—from four days before a rash until four days after—a single infected person can contact hundreds of people.
Measles can cause serious complications.
Measles can lead to pneumonia or ear infections. Most kids recover easily, but in approximately every 1,000 cases, one person will suffer encephalitis (brain inflammation) that causes permanent brain damage; and two to three people will die.
The vaccine is safe.
The latest study, in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics, showed that the vaccine is safe. This goes for both forms of the vaccine available in the U.S.: measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR; and measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (chicken pox), or MMRV. Researchers tracked more than 600,000 1-year-olds over 12 years to confirm the vaccine's safety.
The vaccine works.
Ninety-five percent of kids will develop immunity when they get their 12-month vaccination. The second dose before kindergarten (age 4-6) gives 99 percent immunity. By contrast, 90 percent of exposed, unvaccinated people will get sick. Immunity can disappear over time and 5 in 100 will lose their immunity by their late teens or adulthood.
The vaccine works even if your child gets it after being exposed to measles.
If your child is exposed and unvaccinated, or hasn't gotten a booster shot, the vaccine protects when given within 72 hours of exposure.
Very young babies are already protected.
Until 6 months, babies are still protected by the antibodies received in Mom's womb. But the antibodies will break down, and by 9 months, your baby becomes vulnerable.
Babies should now be vaccinated before international travel.
Because of increased risk, the AAP and CDC now recommends vaccinating 6- to 12-month-olds. However, the regular two-shot series after 12 months is still necessary to ensure long-lasting immunity. And a traveling toddler should get the booster shot early. Learn more about the AAP's updated vaccine schedule here.
Wendy Hunter, M.D., is a pediatrician in the Emergency Department at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, and the mom of two children. She's the author of the Baby Science blog, where she explains the reasons behind weird kid behaviors and scary (but normal) baby symptoms.
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