4 Things to Know About the Measles and Vaccination

Why are measles outbreaks on the rise, even in places where the vaccine is readily accessible? Am I safe as long as I’ve been vaccinated? Everyday Einstein investigates. 

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #315
image of child with measles

The measles vaccine is actually extremely effective. A very weakened version is introduced via the vaccine so that the body’s immune system is triggered to produce the antibodies needed to easily fight it off. Those antibodies then hang out in case you should ever encounter a full-strength version of the virus. Two doses of the vaccine are usually recommended because after the first dose, 5-7% of people still won’t have developed enough of the antibodies to protect themselves. That percentage decreases to around only 3% after a second dose.

But that still means 3% (or 3 in every 100) of people who vaccinate against measles are still at risk for contracting the virus should they be exposed. You are still better off getting the vaccine both because you are less likely to spread the disease to others and because your symptoms are likely to be greatly reduced.

Those who elect not to vaccinate for measles also put vaccinated people at a higher risk.

And those symptoms can be very serious. Those with vitamin A deficiencies are more likely to have symptoms that are more severe and complications like ear infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, or encephalitis (swelling of the brain).

An estimated one or two in every 1000 children who contract measles will die in the United States from respiratory and neurologic complications. One out of every 1,000 measles cases will also lead to encephalitis, which can result in permanent brain damage.

There are also complications like subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (or SSPE), a degenerative brain disease that can occur as long as eight years after someone has had the measles. SSPE, which affects 1 in every 600 children, starts with subtle changes in behavior and a weakening performance in school and eventually leads to seizures and possibly the loss of bodily functions, until someone ends up in a vegetative state.

What can I do to protect myself against the measles?

The World Health Organization’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (or SAGE) considers measles elimination “greatly under threat” in large part due to people who intentionally choose not to vaccinate. Ironically, the success of the measles vaccine may be to blame as many parents and their physicians who support not vaccinating young children may do so in part because they have not seen cases of measles firsthand and thus don’t understand the severity of the risks. We may see increases in outbreaks in the future as children who are not vaccinated now will eventually become adults who can easily pass the virus on to their own children, who are at higher risk for complications.

So what can you do to protect yourself? As with any virus, washing your hands with soap and water, not touching your face, and avoiding contact with someone with measles can help prevent you from contracting the disease. But with a 97% efficacy rate, the best thing you can do to protect yourself against measles is to get vaccinated. Even getting vaccinated after exposure to the virus may help weaken your symptoms should you come down with measles.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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