Why the Measles Outbreak Is So Dangerous, in 5 Quick Facts

#2: The measles virus can survive in the air for up to 2 hours.

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When an epidemic is far in the past—such as smallpox or polio—it’s easy to forget how devastating it was for the people who lived it. Today, children are lucky enough to be born into a society that has life-saving vaccines to prevent these diseases.

One such vaccine that has received plenty of attention lately is the MMR vaccine, short for measles, mumps, and rubella. After the vaccine’s introduction, cases of measles dropped dramatically from around 700,000 in 1954, to around 25,000 in 1968, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 1982, cases had dropped to almost nonexistent levels.

Unfortunately, myths about vaccines have caused immunization levels to drop, and as a result, new outbreaks of measles have occurred in pockets throughout the United States (and in some European countries as well).

A new measles outbreak could be destructive and even fatal for a community and the country at whole, as shown by the following five facts:

1. Measles is one of the most contagious diseases.

How contagious? Hypothetically, if you had measles and walked into a room full of people without immunity, it’s estimated that 90 percent of the people in that room would become infected with measles, according to the CDC.

This is why measles outbreaks are so devastating in communities where vaccination rates are low. High immunization rates lead to herd immunity, which helps contain the virus and keep it from spreading.

2. The measles virus can survive in the air for up to 2 hours.

You might think keeping your distance from someone infected with measles will keep you safe, but measles isn’t like lice. Someone with measles could cough or sneeze in a classroom, store, or airplane, and the virus could continue hanging around for two hours after they leave the space. This puts not just the people around them at risk, but everyone who enters the space after them.

3. The measles rash doesn’t appear right away.

What makes #2 even more dangerous is that it’s easy for someone to have measles and not know it right away. Appearing as flat red spots all over the skin, the measles rash is the telltale sign of measles that most people recognize. Before the rash appears, it can just seem like the average sickness.

After exposure to the measles virus, it may take one or two weeks before the rash actually appears. Before the rash, the individual usually experience other early symptoms of measles, which mimic the flu:

  • Elevated fever

  • Cough

  • Runny nose

  • Watery eyes

The rash usually appears three to five days after these flu-like symptoms start, according to the CDC. The measles virus is contagious four days before and four days after the appearance of the rash.

4. Globally, measles causes around 100,000 deaths a year.

Tragically, many parts of the world still struggle with the measles due to weaker healthcare infrastructures, resulting in reduced vaccination rates.

On the bright side, this number is a significant improvement from the pre-vaccine era: Measles caused around one million deaths a year around the world before the introduction of the measles vaccine. Additionally, the World Health Organization reports a worldwide 80 percent drop in deaths from measles between 2000 and 2017.

5. Measles can have serious long-term effects.

It’s true that measles isn’t always fatal: About one or two of every 1,000 measles cases ends in death. However, children younger than five and adults older than 20 are more likely to have serious measles complications, according to the CDC.

About one in every 1,000 measles cases can cause encephalitis, or swelling of the brain. This is a severe complication that can cause convulsions, and potentially lead to deafness and/or intellectual disabilities.

To protect your family and your community from measles, learn more here about the recommended vaccine schedule for babies.