Measles is one of the world’s most contagious viruses, and yes, it can be deadly.

Before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, worldwide epidemics occurred every few years. These epidemics resulted in about 2.6 million deaths annually.

The widespread use of vaccinations has significantly decreased this number. In 2018, it was estimated that only 142,000 deaths from measles occurred worldwide.

Unvaccinated young children are at the highest risk of measles complications, including deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Unvaccinated pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems are also more vulnerable regarding risk of complications and possible death.

Today, the measles virus is making a resurgence in multiple countries. The uptick in measles cases may be due to the circulation of misinformation about the measles and related vaccines, which has led to an anti-vaccination movement.

In this article, we’ll discuss how severe infection with the measles virus can be. We’ll also explore some of the myths surrounding the measles vaccine, to help you separate fact from fiction. Read on.

Measles is a virus, and its initial symptoms can resemble a flu. People infected with measles may experience a high fever, cough, and runny nose.

Within a few days, you may see the telltale measles rash that consists of small, red bumps that are widespread, starting from the hairline on the face and eventually working its way towards the feet.

Complications from measles

A measles infection can lead to a variety of complications, some of which are immediate or severe, while others may be lifelong. These include:

  • Acute complications. These include diarrhea and ear infections. Hospitalization is also common.
  • Severe complications. These include premature births in infected pregnant people, encephalitis, pneumonia, and hearing loss.
  • Long-term complications. These can lead to intellectual or developmental disabilities in babies and young children.
  • Neurological complications such as rare subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) are also possible measles-related developments. It’s estimated that up to 3 in every 1,000 children with measles will die from respiratory and neurologic complications.

The problem with measles is that, not only is it highly contagious, but you may be an unknowing carrier of the virus for several days. In fact, you may contract the virus but not have any symptoms until 10 to 12 days after initial contact has occurred.

Like other viruses, measles can be spread from contact, but it’s also extremely airborne, lasting for a couple hours in the air.

This is why the measles vaccine is so important in bringing down the numbers of infections, as well as subsequent complications and deaths.

Immunizations come in the form of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, as well as the MMRV vaccine in children at 12 months up through the age of 12 years, which offers additional protection against varicella (chickenpox).

Overall, statistics have shown that the measles vaccine has directly impacted the rate of measles infections and subsequent deaths. In fact, there was a 73 percent decrease in measles deaths worldwide, noted between 2000 and 2018.

Outbreaks of the infection are more prominent in developing countries where the vaccine isn’t as widely available, as well as areas where people actively refuse the vaccine.

The measles vaccine is considered safe. Two recommended doses are 97 percent effective; one does is 93 percent effective.

However, as with any other vaccine, there’s a very small risk of causing an allergic reaction in some people. It’s estimated that less than 1 in every 1 million doses of measles vaccine given may cause a severe allergic reaction to the MMR vaccine.

Ask your doctor about your individual risk, particularly if you have a history of allergic reactions to shots.

Who should not get the vaccine?

While widely recommended for children and healthy adults, there’s also certain people who should not get the measles vaccine. These include:

  • children under 12 months of age (the exception is children at 6 months of age who live in a measles-prone, outbreak area)
  • women who are or likely may be pregnant
  • people with serious active illnesses or infections, such as tuberculosis
  • those who have undergone a recent blood product transfusion
  • people with immune system deficiency issues related to cancer treatments, HIV/AIDS, and other medical considerations
  • people with a severe gelatin allergy (may increase your risk of allergic reaction)

Due to concerns about vaccines and other health issues, myths about measles are spreading around the internet, posing risks for the spread of the actual virus in real life.

Below are some of the most common claims made about the measles virus and the MMR/MMRV vaccine:

Claim 1: The measles isn’t a big concern in developed nations, such as the United States

FALSE. While it’s true that measles is more prominent in developing countries due to lack of access to vaccines, measles infection rates have increased in the United States over the last 20 years. In 2019, the United States saw the greatest number of measles cases since the virus was eliminated in 2000.

Check with your doctor and local health officials for measles advisories in your area, and make sure your vaccine schedules are up to date.

Claim 2: The death rate doesn’t warrant the use of measles vaccines

FALSE. While it’s possible to survive a measles infection, there are too many deadly complications associated with it. Not getting the measles vaccine puts yourself at risk for the virus. It also makes you a possible carrier, putting sensitive groups, such as young children, at risk, too.

Claim 3: The vaccine doesn’t offer 100 percent protection

TRUE. But the statistics are close. The measles vaccine has a protection rate of 93 percent with one dose, while two doses have a 97 percent protection rate. The key here is that the more prevalent vaccines are in a populous, the less likely the virus will infect people and spread.

Claim 4: Natural methods can help prevent the measles instead of relying on vaccines

FALSE. Good hygiene should be exercised by everyone, regardless of their vaccination status. However, this isn’t enough to prevent a highly contagious airborne virus like the measles.

Furthermore, no vitamins, herbs, or essential oils will help to “kill” this virus. Plus, there’s no way to treat the actual virus, only its complications. The only scientifically proven mode of protection is the MMR vaccine.

Claim 5: The MMR vaccine causes autism

FALSE. This is a previous claim that has long since been debunked. Part of the reason why this myth is so prevalent is that signs of autism are often more strongly realized and diagnosed in affected children around 12 months of age, which also happens to be the time children receive their first MMR vaccine.

Measles is a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus. The most effective way to prevent this viral infection is by getting vaccinated.

However, not everyone can get the vaccine. This is why it’s also important to make sure that people who can get the MMR vaccine get their initial shot and booster.

Since measles is also spread through the air, you can be at a higher risk of getting infected if you live in or visit an area where the infection is prominent.

You can help protect yourself and your family by staying up to date on any local measles outbreak advisories from schools and local health officials.

Talk to a doctor about your individual concerns regarding the measles virus and vaccine.