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Don't be Measle-y Confused

Updated: Mar 14, 2019

Measles is a viral disease, it starts with fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes, and sore throat. It’s followed by a rash that spreads over the body.

How infectious is the disease?

Measles is a considered to be one of the most contagious viruses around. The virus is contained in the nose and throat mucosa. It is easily spread through coughing and sneezing. The virus can survive for up to two hours in an airspace or contaminated surface, which makes potential contact transmission of the disease a huge risk.

Touching an infected surface and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, is how the disease is most often spread.

The National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Division of Viral Diseases states that Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of people who are close to the infected individual will likely become infected (if not vaccinated).

Infected individuals can spread measles to others four days before and four days after a rash is present. Meaning that you could be spreading the disease before even being aware that you are a carrier. I think its also important to note that rash development can take up to 14 days to occur after an individual is exposed.

Aside from the risk of death, what other long term health impacts can the disease have?

Unfortunately, a common belief is that measles isn’t a deadly disease. People say things like “well I had measles when I was a kid and I’m fine.” However, this is only true for those that have no other health related issues. The disease can be fatal, especially for those who are immunocompromised or have any secondary respiratory concerns, such as asthma.

The risk of death is highest among young children and adults. Pneumonia related deaths account for about 60% of mortality cases. The most common causes of death are pneumonia in children and acute encephalitis in adults.

Secondary complications:

  • Ear infections occur in about one out of every 10 children with measles and can result in permanent hearing loss.

  • As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children.

  • About one child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or with intellectual disability.

  • For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.

  • Measles may cause pregnant woman to give birth prematurely, or have a low-birth-weight baby.

  • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis is a rare, fatal brain disorder occurring months to years after an attack of measles. It causes mental deterioration, myoclonic jerks, and seizures. It can occur 7 to 10 years after a person has measles, even though the person seems to have fully recovered from the illness.

Also note, this is a viral disease. Meaning that treatment options are limited as antibiotics are unusable for the treatment of viruses.

Are children who have had their first shot but who are not old enough for the second more at risk than those fully vaccinated?

Yes, in general children and the neonatal population are at a higher risk for contracting diseases regardless, due to their immature immune systems. Leading causes of mortality in infants are respiratory infections and diarrhea, both of which are symptoms of the measles.

For more specific immunization questions regarding the MMR vaccination, I would encourage people to reach out to our public health nurses or call 811.

Social media has armchair experts who say the craziest things. How dangerous is purposeful exposure to the disease to build immunity as some suggest was the case pre-vaccination era?

Spreading diseases for the purpose of natural immunity is a hot topic. With diseases that have the potential to cause mortality, I think this one is a no brainer. Neonates and young children have immature immune systems to begin with. In utero, mom’s are able to pass on some immunity to their babies, even more so if they choose to breastfeed; however, our immune systems are not fully functional until later on in life therefore they have a increased risk of infection.

Another consideration is how illness in general effects the younger population, this is something we discuss at length in our Child & Infant Health + CPR course. Deterioration can occur much more rapidly in the pediatric population in comparison to the same illness in a healthy adult.

Sourcing medical information and opinions should be done with appropriate resources; social media not being one of them (unless it's ours! ;) )

* Questions provided by The Cochrane Eagle

Our goal is to promote factual information in hopes that those questioning vaccinations can make informed decisions for themselves and their families.

More information can be found at:

For additional information on measles disease, visit

Albertan's uncertain of their immunization history, or their child’s immunization history, can call Health Link at 811 to discuss.

Blog References:

Written by:

Chelsea Mann – Co-owner of Cochrane Emergency Training Services – First Aid & CPR and pediatric ICU nurse at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.



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