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10 Common Myths About Measles—and the Real Facts

March 05, 2015

More than 140 people across 17 states have contracted measles in the last year. The recent outbreak has led to increased concerns about preventing and treating this illness, particularly in children.

These concerns are certainly warranted. Measles is a highly contagious airborne disease that spreads through coughing and sneezing. People with this condition often have symptoms such as fever, cough, runny nose, red eyes and a sore throat.

But even as we see more measles cases in the U.S., the one silver lining is that this disease is highly preventable thanks to the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Vaccinations are a critical tool for preventing the spread of measles, but some people still aren’t convinced that it is the best way to keep themselves or their families safe. Others just aren’t aware of the seriousness of measles, its symptoms or what precautions they can take to reduce their risk.

In that vein, it’s important to separate what’s true from what isn’t. So, here are ten myths about measles—and the real facts.

Myth # 1: Only children can get measles.

Fact: While adults have a significantly lower risk of contracting the measles, in some cases a doctor may recommend that they get the vaccine. If you are in a high-risk health care job, for example, immunization may be required.

If you were born during or after 1957 and have never had the measles or received the measles vaccine, you also should get immunized. This would be very rare, as most adults of this age were indeed immunized and are considered immune. The risk of complications from measles is higher in adults, so older adults who feel that they may be at risk should consult their physician.

Myth #2: Everyone should get the measles vaccine.

Fact: Anyone born before 1957 or who already has had the measles or the measles vaccine series does not need to be vaccinated.

Children whose immune systems are not normal or who are on medications that suppress the immune system should not get live virus vaccines. They depend upon others to be immunized to keep the diseases out of their communities.

Myth #3: There are natural ways to prevent the measles, so I don’t need the vaccine.

Fact: There aren’t any natural preventative measures for measles. I can’t stress this enough—vaccinations are the single most effective way to prevent yourself from contracting measles. I understand that some parents are concerned about the MMR vaccine, but that is because it can be difficult to sift through all the conflicting information out there. The best thing parents can do is talk to their doctor and get the facts so they can ensure their children are protected.

Myth #4: The measles vaccine causes autism.

Fact: This is absolutely not true. This idea may have emerged from the fact that the MMR is given around the first birthday, about the same time that most children with autism really become obvious and get diagnosed. Time and again, several large studies have failed to show any connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Myth #5: My child is only a year old. He is too young to be vaccinated.

Fact: Most children get their first measles vaccine when they are between 12 and 15 months old. With the current situation, we now recommend that these immunizations begin at one year of age. If there is a local outbreak, we even recommend that children as young as six months get vaccinated. The potential problem with early immunization with the vaccine is that many babies still have enough antibodies in their bodies from their mothers that can attach to the vaccine and "hide it" from the baby's immune system. So, vaccinating before a child is one year old does not work in some children. If we immunize early in the case of an outbreak, we immunize again at 12 months just to make sure the child is protected.

Myth #6: You don’t need to get to get a “booster” shot if you’ve already received the measles vaccine.

Fact: Well, it’s not exactly a “booster”. We give a second shot of the measles vaccine when a child is between four to six years old. This second dose is meant to better protect children who for some reason didn’t respond to their first vaccine.

The first dose immunizes about 95 percent of patients, and by the second dose we achieve immunity for over 99 percent of patients.

Myth #7: You can get the measles multiple times, even if you’ve already had it.

Fact: Not true. Unlike the chicken pox, measles do not come back once your system is cleared of the virus.

Myth #8: Getting the vaccine ensures I won’t get the measles.

Fact: Unfortunately, no vaccine is perfect. After one dose of the MMR, 5 out of 100 children are still not immune. After two doses, about 1 child in 100 still is not immune. This illustrates another reason why we depend upon one another to immunize all of our children so that the disease never has a chance to spread within the community.

Myth #9: I’m at a higher risk of contracting the measles if I visit a theme park in Orlando.

Fact: Right now, there is no endemic measles in the U.S. That means it is not floating around in our native population. The only outbreaks we have had in the past many years start with an unimmunized child coming into the U.S. from another country and falling ill en route or once they are here. Since Orlando is a tourist destination for many international travelers from places with lower immunization rates, . However, if you have already had the measles vaccine series, you are personally at very low risk to contract the virus.

Myth # 10: Proper handwashing can prevent measles.

Fact: Not really. Good handwashing is very important for preventing illness. However, measles is so contagious that even tiny particles with live measles virus hang around in the air after a contagious person has left a room. In medical situations, we close the room for at least several hours and then go in and sanitize surfaces to prevent the virus from spreading.

Measles is a serious illness that could lead to serious complications. The best way to avoid it is to get your child immunized according to the immunization schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If you’re concerned about the vaccine, talk to your doctor, ask questions and get the right information so you can make the best decision to protect your health, your family’s health, and that of other children in your community.

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