Measles head pic

Measles

Measles (sometimes called Rubeola) is making a comeback. Before the vaccine was made widely available in the 1960s almost everyone contracted measles at some point in their life (usually when they were children) but the introduction of the vaccine all but eradicated the virus in the developed world. However, unwarranted fears of the MMR (joint measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine’s connection to autism, in a highly controversial and now disproved 1998 scientific study, caused people to shy away from vaccinating their children. This has in turn led to an increased number of measles cases in the UK. In the first 6 months of 2012 there was almost twice the number of cases from the same period the year before (965 up from 497).

Measles is an incredibly contagious virus, easily spread through the air by coughs or sneezes. It causes a high fever, sore eyes and an itchy rash along with other symptoms. Though most people recover within a week some are left with more serious long term conditions and one in a thousand cases end in death. Those who live in halls, work in health care or plan to travel soon, should definitely check out the symptoms and consider getting vaccinated (if they aren’t already) as they are at a higher risk of contracting the virus.

+   Symptoms

After exposure the measles virus first grows unseen in your lungs and throat. After about 8-12 days you will begin to notice symptoms. The early symptoms are flu-like, but then you will develop the typical measles rash.

  • Sore eyes
    • May begin by just being bloodshot, but will likely have continued irritation and redness as conjunctivitis develops
  • Cough
  • Muscle pain
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Swollen glands
  • Light sensitivity (photophobia)
  • Fever (can get very high and potentially fatal)
  • Rash
    • The rash will most likely appear after the first 3-5 days of symptoms and last for up to 7 days
    • The rash usually starts on the head behind the ears and spreads down the body and limbs
    • Characterized by flat discoloured areas and raised red bumps
    • It will be itchy
    • You will be contagious for roughly 4 days before the rash and 4 days after the rash appears
  • Along with the rash you may get white spots in your mouth called Koplik’s Spots

+   Treatment

There is no medicine that will cure the measles virus. You just kind of have to let it run its course. The good news is once you have fought it off once, your body remembers how and you will likely never get measles again. In general measles is treated with medicine to reduce symptoms

  • Paracetemol (or aspirin) to lower fever
  • Water and fluids, it’s very important to stay hydrated
  • Bed rest (boring I know, just try and imagine it’s a Sunday before 10am)
  • Closing curtains and keeping the room dim to help with light sensitivity
  • Vitamin A - this is usually prescribed to those in the developing world who are likely to be Vitamin A deficient. It helps to reduce some of the symptoms and complications but unless you are known to be vitamin deficient it is probably unnecessary

+   Complications

Though most people make it through the measles with just a rough couple day’s of discomfort there is the possibility for some serious complications:

  • Bronchitis – treatable with antibiotics
  • Pneumonia (1 in 20 get) – for people with weakened immune systems pneumonia can be life threatening but for most it is treatable with antibiotics
  • Ear infections (1 in 10 get) – treatable with antibiotics
  • Eye squint and blindness as in some cases the measles virus will attack the eye muscles and nerve causing permanent damage
  • Encephalitis (brain swelling) one in a thousand may get encephalitis due to the high fever which can cause, seizures, vomiting and permanent hearing loss. In very rare cases it may cause long term brain damage, coma and death
  • For pregnant women contracting measles can have serious complications for the unborn baby such as
    • Miscarriage
    • Low birth weight
    • Early labour

+   Prevention

The MMR vaccine is a very effective form of prevention and if you had both of the recommended doses at the appropriate ages, or if you have had measles before, you are most likely immune to the virus. This alongside practicing good hygiene, not sharing food and drink, and avoiding anyone you know to have measles will make it pretty easy to prevent yourself from getting the virus.

However immunity from the MMR can lapse as you get older. If you are about to start 6th form college or university, or have extensive travels plans such as a gap year to less developed countries, you may need to consider getting an MMR booster (another shot of the vaccine) to help ensure your immunity.

Viruses are very easily spread in the college or university environment. You live your lives on top of each other in halls and you share food and drink without thinking about it too much which puts you at a higher risk. Some universities will even require you to get the booster before you begin. Travelling to foreign less developed countries, who do not widely vaccinate against measles, will also increase your risk of contracting the illness.

How does the MMR vaccine work?

  • The vaccine works by giving you a very weak strain of the rubella virus, one that it can fight off without you even noticing
  • It gives your body the practice for when then real virus comes along and leaves behind rubella-specific  antibodies in your blood ready to react at the first sign of a new attack
    • 99% of those who get the vaccine are then fully protected from the virus

Do you need the MMR booster?

  • If you had two doses of the MMR vaccine after the age of 12 months then you are probably covered. However, if you are in one of the higher risks categories mentioned above or if you are doing work experience at a hospital you may want to get a simple blood test done, to check your immunity. If it comes back showing you are not immune it is almost definitely worth getting a booster which you can have done at your local doctors surgery.
  • If you did not have two doses of the vaccine as a child or if you had one before you were 12 months old you should definitely consider getting  a booster or at the very least a blood test to check for immunity.
  • It is never too late to get the vaccine as it will continue to be effective

Side Effects of MMR vaccine

There are very few side effects of the MMR vaccine. You cannot develop mumps, measles or rubella from the vaccine and most people who have it experience no side effects. As an adult getting the vaccination it is possible you may get:

  • A mild fever
  • A rash
  • Some joint pain and aching

You should not get the vaccine if:

  • You are pregnant or plan to get pregnant in the next four weeks
  • If you have a severely compromised immune system or cancer
  • If you have a life threatening allergic reaction to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin

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