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Should you worry about the measles?

May 16, 2019 | UCI Health
boy getting the measles vaccine

You’ve heard the news: Measles is back. And you’re fearful that you or a loved one may have been exposed to the highly contagious airborne virus.

Chances are you don’t have it, says UCI Health infectious disease expert Dr. Shruti Gohil, associate medical director for epidemiology and infection prevention at UCI Medical Center.

“Most people in the United States are immune to measles, either through natural exposure if they were born before 1957, or by vaccination,” she says. “And if you are immune to measles, it is highly unlikely that you can become infected with measles if you are exposed to someone with the virus.”

Still, more than 800 cases have been diagnosed across the nation, with at least 44 in California, making 2019 the worst year for this highly contagious disease since 1994. Many of these outbreaks occurred in communities with lower vaccination rates.

With two cases reported in Orange County and 10 in Los Angeles County as of May 10, health officials are scrambling to prevent further spread of the virus, which can linger in a room for one to two hours after an infected person has left.

What to do if you think you have measles

What if you’re feeling under the weather and think you could have been exposed to measles?

First, call your healthcare provider, says Gohil. Do not go into the office or clinic; this will help avoid further spread of the virus.

Tell the office staff you think you may have measles and, if possible, provide information about your vaccination status. Be prepared to answer the following questions, too:

  • Have you been exposed to a person from a foreign country who has a fever and a rash?
  • Were you exposed to a person who has been diagnosed with measles?
  • Were you present at the time and location of another measles patient based upon a local public health department alert?
  • Do you have symptoms of measles including rash, cough, fever, runny nose, sore throat, red eyes?

“If your answers to these questions are all no, you do not need to be evaluated for measles exposure or infection,” says Gohil, who is also an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the UCI School of Medicine.

If you need to be tested

If your healthcare provider decides you need to be tested for measles based on your answers to the questions, special arrangements will be made to evaluate and test you without putting other patients and office staff at risk, Gohil says.

UCI Health medical staff are observing the following protocols when evaluating patients who may have measles:

  • You will be directed to meet a healthcare worker outside of the clinical building.
  • You’ll be asked to bring a same-day urine sample from home in a disposable, sealed container. Please write down the date and time of urine collection and collect the sample as close to the visit as possible.
  • Meet healthcare worker outside of the clinic to drop off urine sample (do NOT go inside).
  • The healthcare worker will also take throat swab sample.
  • Your healthcare provider will contact you with results as soon as possible.
  • Stay home and avoid public areas until your test results come back.

This is very important because if you have measles, you can easily spread it to others who are at high risk for complications, Gohil says.

Who is at risk?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 20 will develop pneumonia, and one in every 1,000 people with measles will develop serious brain infections (acute encephalitis), which may result in permanent brain damage. One or two out of every 1,000 children who become infected with measles will die from respiratory and neurologic complications.

People at greatest risk for severe illness and complications from measles include:

  • Infants and children under age 5
  • Pregnant women
  • Adults who are age 20 or older
  • People with weakened immune systems, such as from leukemia and HIV infection

Why are so many people developing measles?

Once the most common childhood disease, measles was thought to have been eradicated by rigorous vaccination programs. In fact, it was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000. The virus is seeing a resurgence for two reasons, the CDC says:

  • The increasing number of travelers who get measles abroad and bring it into the United States
  • Outbreaks in communities with large numbers of unvaccinated people

How do I know if I’m protected?

Measles vaccination is part of the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine series that is routinely recommended for all children, Gohil says.

You are considered protected from the measles if you:

  • Had 1 dose of MMR and are not in high-risk settings (child care, colleges, hospitals).
  • Had 2 doses of MMR and are in high risk-settings (child care, colleges, hospitals).
  • Have ever been pregnant and had prenatal care, showing rubella immunity, which is routinely checked by an obstetrician. Rubella is part of the MMR vaccine.
  • Were born before 1957.
  • Had blood tests showing you are immune to measles.

Do people ever need a measles booster shot?

No, according to the CDC. People who have had two doses of the measles vaccine as children do not ever need a booster dose.

But if you are unsure whether you have received both doses, talk with your doctor. If you have no evidence of prior vaccination, the CDC recommends you get vaccinated.

Alternatively, a blood test called the MMR titer can determine whether you are immune. The test measures your antibody levels to measles, mumps and rubella. Results may take a few days.

No treatment for measles

If you are diagnosed with measles, there is no specific treatment. All you can do is treat the symptoms by:

  • Resting
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Taking fever-reducing medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprophen
  • Using a humidifier to relieve a severe cough and sore throat symptoms

In general, symptoms should go way within about a week after onset. But be sure to contact your doctor immediately if complications arise.

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