Measles vaccine provides protective punch, says infectious-disease expert

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Measles is one of the leading causes of death of children globally, according to the World Health Organization. With measles cases reported in more than half a dozen states, and the California Department of Public Health reporting more than 50 cases for 2014 alone, parents need to ensure their children’s immunity. To learn more about vaccinations, symptoms and how to protect your little one, we sat down with Hayley Gans, MD, an infectious-disease specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

What are the symptoms of measles?

Dr. Gans: Measles starts with a fever, followed by a cough, runny nose and red eyes. Then a rash of red spots appears, starting at the head and spreading to the rest of the body. The rash can last for a week, and coughing can last for 10 days. Some children who get measles may also get pneumonia, diarrhea or an ear infection, and – in rare occasions, a central nervous system infection. Measles can be dangerous and potentially deadly especially for babies and young children, so if a parent thinks their child has measles, they should contact their pediatrician immediately by phone. If a child has been exposed to measles and is now ill with fever, respiratory symptoms or rash, parents should notify their doctor and his or her staff by phone.  No patient with a fever and rash should enter a clinic or emergency room without notifying the personnel in advance so that arrangements can be made to have the child enter through a separate entrance or with other precautions.

What does treatment for the measles entail?

Dr. Gans: No specific antiviral therapy for measles is available, but treatment for symptoms such as fever, cough and other discomfort may be helpful. The only measures that we have are preventative, which include vaccination, and administering protective antibodies, also known as immune globulin. These preventive measures are extremely effective and have led to measles elimination in the United States. Please contact your pediatrician for treatment options.

How can parents prevent the spread of measles?

Dr. Gans: The best way to prevent catching measles or spreading measles is through vaccination. The current recommendation is for a child to receive his or her first measles vaccine between 12 to 15 months of age, and then the second dose between the ages of 4 and 6 years. But the second dose can be given as early as one month after the first dose.

If parents are planning to travel with their children, any child who is older than 6 months should receive the measles vaccine, and any child who has received one dose of measles vaccine should receive a second dose. In order for the vaccine to be protective, it should be administered at least two weeks prior to travel. In addition, parents should not assume that a foreign country is free of measles. Many nations, including some European countries, are having recurrences of the disease after being free of measles for years.

If a child has already contracted measles, but is otherwise healthy and not immune compromised, he or she should remain home and away from other children for four days after onset of rash.

How long does the vaccine last? Is it possible to get measles twice?

Dr. Gans: As far as we can tell, the measles vaccine provides lifelong protection; there should not be a need for a booster later in life. Two doses of the measles vaccine should be enough.

As for contracting measles a second time, when a person has an actual case of measles once, he or she is immune to a recurrence.

What are the side effects of the measles vaccine, if any? Are there any inherent dangers to the vaccine?

Dr. Gans: The measles vaccine, which is administered along with mumps and rubella in a single immunization, is very safe. There is no link between the measles vaccine and a major disease. The most common side effects are related to the site of immunization, which include redness and swelling. Between 5 and 15 percent of people may develop a fever and rash, which is not contagious.

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