Measles: not so harmless

Many people think of measles as a fairly harmless disease. However, this is simply not true. Measles can cause very serious health issues and can be especially dangerous to children, the elderly and anyone with a chronic illness. Measles is also one of the most infectious diseases, more so than even Ebola. In 2014 Australia had eliminated measles, but it has returned, and outbreaks are happening across the globe. To arm you with everything you need to know, here are some facts on measles and why being immunised against it is so important.

What are the symptoms?

When first infected, you can expect to get flu-like symptoms. This includes fever, being tired, a cough, runny nose and red eyes. These get more severe over the next few days with white spots developing in the mouth. This is followed by a blotchy red rash on the face or upper neck, which spreads to the rest of the body. At this point, you will probably be feeling quite unwell.

Measles can have serious consequences

Despite the misconceptions around measles, it can lead to serious issues. This includes pneumonia (an infection in the lungs), and encephalitis (a swelling of the brain that can lead to brain damage or even death).

Measles is incredibly contagious

It is estimated that a person with measles can infect between 12 and 18 people. If the person with measles coughs in a room and then leaves, droplets from the cough are still contagious up to two hours later. Another reason it spreads so much is that if you have measles, you are infectious even before you begin to have symptoms.

Getting measles makes you more susceptible to other diseases

When you’re sick, your immune system fights off the illness, getting you back to full health. But with measles, it weakens your immune system. And it can wipe your body’s memory of the illnesses it has fought off in the past, boosting your risk of picking up other diseases. It can take years for your immune system to bounce back.

How can you protect yourself from measles?

The chances of getting the measles, and the chance of it leading to more serious consequences is greatly reduced by getting vaccinated. If you are vaccinated, it also helps protect those around you. A population that’s 95% immunised has ‘herd immunity’. This means enough people are immunised to stop the spread of disease. This helps those that are very young or have medical reasons why they can’t be vaccinated.

How does vaccination work?

When antigens (a toxin or other harmful foreign substance such as bacteria, viruses or parasites) enter your body, your immune system senses that they are unfamiliar and works to get rid of them.

Your immune system maintains a ‘memory’ of how to defeat the antigens, so that it can quickly produce antibodies if you come into contact with the virus or germ again, stopping the disease or reducing its impact. Being vaccinated mirrors this process. When you get a measles vaccination, your body is only exposed to a weakened version of the measles virus, making it totally safe. For more on how vaccines work click here.

When is the right time to be vaccinated

The Immunisation Schedule Queensland encourages parents to vaccinate their baby for measles when they are 12 and 18 months old. Both doses are free and for the best protection, they should occur on time.

If you or your child need a measles vaccination

Babies under 12 months old aren’t routinely vaccinated against the measles. However, if you or your child need a vaccination, have concerns about being exposed to the measles, or are planning to travel with your baby, speak with your doctor, child health nurse or immunisation provider.

Do I need a measles vaccination?

If you missed out on your vaccine as a child, you should ensure you get a measles vaccination.If you are unsure if you’ve had one, you can check your immunisation history or speak with your doctor.

If I’ve had the measles before do I still need to get a vaccine?

You don’t need to receive the vaccine if you’ve already had measles, but it won’t harm you if you do get the vaccine. Speak with your doctor or immunisation provider to find out more.

Should I get a measles vaccination booster?

Measles doesn’t just affect children; it also affects adults. So, although the vaccine is very effective, there might be reasons why adults need a booster shot. You may need one if:

  • You plan to travel
  • You are over a certain age
  • You are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.

In Queensland, anyone born during or since 1966 without two documented doses of a measles-containing vaccine is eligible for a free MMR booster.

Find out more

So that’s the low down on measles and why you should get vaccinated. For more on vaccination and other preventable diseases, click here.

Last updated: 07 March 2021