How to Protect Babies from Measles

Babies have a higher risk of experiencing complications if exposed to the measles virus. Here's how to protect your baby from getting measles.

baby with measles Courtesy of CDC/Jim Goodson, MPH

Measles is a concern for everyone -- but especially so if you're the parent of a baby who's too young to be vaccinated. Since December 2014, when an outbreak occurred in Disneyland, measles has infected more than 120 people across 17 states -- including at least five babies at a day-care center in Chicago. Infants, of course, aren't supposed to get the MMR vaccine until they're at least 12 months old, so they're at a higher risk of contracting the disease.

Newborns do have some immunity from their mothers, but it varies from baby to baby, depending on the strength of mom's immunity. "A newborn's immunity is definitely strongest right after birth, but the protection wanes over the subsequent months," says David L. Hill, M.D., a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and author of Dad To Dad: Parenting Like A Pro. Here's how you can best protect your baby from measles.

    Follow the Approved Vaccine Schedule for Kids

    The current immunization schedule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella) for babies at 12 to 15 months, with a second dose given at 4 to 6 years. But updated guidelines now allow for babies as young as 6 months to get the MMR vaccine if they are traveling outside the country.

    So if you are planning an international trip, babies between 6 and 11 months old should get one dose of the MMR vaccine before departure from the United States.

    But what about babies who aren't traveling internationally? At this point, neither the CDC nor the AAP recommend that 6- to 11-month-old babies get the vaccine.

    However, if there is a major measles outbreak in a specific area, it's possible that local health departments may recommend babies as young as 6 months old get the vaccine, says David Kimberlin, M.D., co-director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Division of Pediatrics Infectious Diseases at Children's of Alabama. "The vaccine is safe in these very young babies, but does not work as well as it does in older babies," he says. Furthermore, he adds, "If a baby gets the measles shot between 6 and 12 months of age, he or she still needs two additional doses at the regular time."

    Make Sure Family and Caregivers Are Vaccinated

    You can also protect your baby by ensuring that those around her are vaccinated. Babies are best protected by herd immunity (when those who are vaccinated protect those who are not).

    First, parents and grandparents who have not gotten the measles vaccine and are able to receive it should be vaccinated. Keep in mind, though, that anyone born before 1957 is considered to be immune to measles. "The disease affected everyone back then, before we had the vaccine," says Dr. Kimberlin. If you were vaccinated with two doses as a child or an adult, you don't need to get vaccinated again, but if you're unable to verify your vaccinations, there's no risk in getting a booster shot.

    Also, any siblings in a household who are not vaccinated can "catch up" on immunity with two MMR doses as least four weeks apart. Even if you missed the recommended vaccine schedule, it's not too late to protect your child. School-aged children and adolescents can still get two doses of the MMR vaccine at least four weeks apart. Also, anyone can still be vaccinated within three days of measles exposure.

    Be Careful Where You Bring Your Baby

    Although herd immunity has its benefits, it's not guaranteed. "Any place where large numbers of people congregate and there are a number of international visitors, like airports, shopping malls, and tourist attractions, you may be more likely to find measles, which should be considered if you are not vaccinated," states Gil Chavez, M.D. State Epidemiologist and Deputy Director, Center for Infectious Diseases, California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

    Even less-crowded places close to home can be worrisome. "If I lived in a community with a low vaccination rate, I would think hard before bringing my infant to birthday parties, day-care centers, or other places that might be frequented by unvaccinated children," says Dr. Hill. "The virus can linger in the air as long as two hours, so just avoiding susceptible children may not be enough."

    Always make sure to contact your pediatrician immediately for the best course of action.

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