measles
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Measles Cases Are On the Rise. Here's What Parents Need to Know

Posted on April 15, 2024 by Stacy Leatherwood Cannon MD
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Measles outbreaks in the U.S. have reached record-breaking numbers, with nearly a third of all measles cases in the past four years happening during a three-month stretch in 2024, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A total of 113 cases, including seven outbreaks, have been reported by the CDC since January 1, 2024 — compared to four outbreaks reported during 2023.

What is causing this treat to the country's measles elimination status? What's driving the increase in measles cases? And how can you protect your children from contracting the disease? We have the answers.

Frequently Asked Questions About Measles

Measles is highly contagious. In fact, you don’t need person-to-person contact to catch it. A single respiratory droplet (the small amounts of liquid produced when we cough, sneeze, talk or breathe) can cause significant damage. If someone infected with measles sneezes or coughs, the virus can stick around in the air for up to two hours. What’s worse, up to 90% of unvaccinated individuals will develop the measles when exposed to the virus.

Q: Why is there such a sudden increase in measles across the United States?

A: The most concerning reason behind the spike is falling vaccination rates. Some children are under-vaccinated, meaning they’ve only received one of the two shots required for protection. Others aren’t vaccinated at all. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of people coming into the U.S. from countries where vaccination isn’t common.

Q: What is the measles vaccination protocol?

A: To protect against the measles, children need a series of two measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines, one between 12 to 15 months old and a booster at age 4. If there are concerns that a child may be exposed to measles, mumps or rubella, the second dose can be given sooner. Unvaccinated children older than 6 months may receive the MMR ahead of schedule in the case of outbreak or increased risk of exposure. The child would then return to the regular schedule.

Q: Who is most at risk for measles?

A: Babies under 6 months (who are not eligible for the vaccine), unvaccinated children and kids under 5 years of age are at highest risk of developing the measles.

Q: What does measles look like?

A: The incubation phase can last up to 21 days. During that time, children may not experience any symptoms at all. After that, your child might spike a fever, lose their appetite and suffer from fatigue. Those symptoms typically last for two to four days and often come with the coughing, sneezing, conjunctivitis (pink eye) and stuffy head people link with a cold or flu. Then, little white spots (called koplik spots) develop on the mucosa inside the cheek, followed by the telltale measles rash, which shows up within 48 hours of the initial signs of sickness.

Q: How long is someone who has the measles contagious?

A: Most people think the rash signifies whether or not a person is contagious. The truth is, people who have the measles can spread the disease for up to five days before the rash first appears, and they can continue to spread the virus for four days after the first sign of a rash. The rash typically resolves within five to six days.

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Q: What should I do if I suspect my child has the measles?

A: If you suspect your child may have the measles, keep him or her away from other people and call your doctor. While many viruses cause a rash, the current measles outbreaks make it important to rule out the disease in children with a rash and fever. It’s always a good idea to call ahead to a doctor’s office, emergency room or urgent care center before arriving if you suspect measles. It allows health professionals to prepare to evaluate your child while also reducing the risk of exposing other people to the virus.

Q: What treatments are available?

A: There’s no antiviral medication available for the measles. Instead, doctors focus on treating symptoms, such as cough, runny nose, fever and the rash. Since vitamin A deficiency can result in delayed recovery and an increased risk of post-measles complications, the World Health Organization recommends giving children with measles high-dose vitamin A for two days.

Q: What are some of the complications of the measles?

A: Children who suffer from fever for more than four or five days may develop serious complications, including diarrhea, dehydration and pneumonia. In severe cases, children may also develop encephalitis, where the virus enters the fluid around the brain. This can lead to long-term complications and a life-threatening infection.

Q: How can I protect my child?

A: In addition to vaccinating your child with the MMR vaccine on schedule, you can protect your child by taking the same steps you take to sidestep cold and flu: Be aware of your environment, know your risk and steer clear of people who are sick. Doctors can give immune globulin (Ig) within 6 days of exposure to high-risk immune-suppressed individuals, who are not eligible for the MMR vaccine. 

Staying Safe

Cases of measles are climbing because vaccination rates are falling. So even though our national vaccination rate is nearly 92%, there are pockets around the country where rates are far below that. Unfortunately, the people most at risk of contracting measles and the ensuing complications are those who cannot get the MMR vaccine for medical reasons (including pregnant women and children who are too young to receive the vaccine).

The bottom line: Vaccinate your children with two doses of the MMR vaccine. Deciding not to vaccinate not only puts your child at risk, it also makes the entire community more susceptible to the illness. It’s never too late to vaccinate.


Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician and the physician champion for childhood wellness. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in midtown Detroit and Sterling Heights. Learn more about Dr. Leatherwood Cannon.

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