Are you immune to measles?

General Health

Measles has been a hot topic in the news lately with the number of outbreaks on the rise. Find out more about measles and how simple it is to check if you are immune to the virus.

22/05/2019


Emily Condon
BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences

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Measles in the news 

Over recent weeks there have been many news stories reporting on the re-emergence of the preventable virus which causes measles. Although still far below historical levels, the number of people catching measles has been on the rise for several years. Reported cases rose by 31% in 2017 on the year before, leading to about 110,000 deaths worldwide [1]. 

Since the measles vaccine was introduced in 1988, the number of people catching measles has fallen significantly, eventually leading some countries declaring measles had been eliminated. Before the introduction of the vaccine, large epidemics of measles occurred every few years. Since the vaccine was introduced in the UK, Public Health England estimates that 20 million measles cases and 4,500 deaths have been averted in the UK [2]. A vaccination target of 95% creates "herd immunity" in a community, to prevent this highly infectious disease from spreading.

In recent years NHS Digital shows that coverage of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine for children reaching their 2nd birthday fell in England [3]. Last year saw the number of cases of measles across England more than triple to 966 from 259 [4]. Many adolescents and young adults who have not been given the MMR as infants are vulnerable and are at risk of catching measles.

What is measles? 

Measles is a highly infectious viral illness that can sometimes lead to serious complications and can be fatal in very rare cases. The rubeola virus which causes measles spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. MMR is an effective combined vaccine that protects against 3 separate illnesses – measles, mumps and rubella (German measles) – in a single injection. It's now uncommon in the UK because of the effectiveness of the MMR vaccination. The MMR vaccine is given on the NHS as a single injection to babies as part of their routine vaccination schedule, usually within a month of their first birthday. They'll then have a second injection of the vaccine before starting school, usually at 3 years and 4 months.

The initial symptoms of measles often develop around 10 days after being infected and can include:

•    cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing and a cough
•    sore, red eyes that may be sensitive to light
•    a high temperature (fever), which may reach around 40C (104F)
•    small greyish-white spots on the inside of the cheeks
•    a few days later, a red-brown blotchy rash will appear covering the entirety of the body. 

Can adults catch measles? 

Although it is most common in children, anyone can get measles if they haven't been vaccinated or haven't had it before. The disease is more severe in the very young, in adults and in people with immunity problems. Vaccination is the only way of preventing measles if you have not already been exposed to the virus. 

Does having measles or being vaccinated offer lifelong protection?

The MMR vaccine contains weakened versions of live measles, mumps and rubella viruses. The vaccine works by triggering the immune system to produce antibodies against measles, mumps and rubella. If you then come into contact with one of these 3 diseases, the immune system will recognise it and immediately produce the antibodies needed to fight it. Previously having measles or having two doses of the vaccine give long-lasting protection against measles. 

Can I get measles if I have been vaccinated?

It's extremely unlikely, but 2 doses of the MMR vaccination are required in order to be fully protected. The first dose of the MMR jab protects 90% of those who receive it, and the second dose tops this up to 99% protection [5]. 

Can I still get the MMR vaccination if I wasn’t vaccinated as a baby?

Yes. It's never too late for you to "catch up" with MMR vaccination if you have never had it. Adults without immunity should have a catch-up MMR vaccination. 

How do I know if I have measles immunity?

A measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) blood test is a simple way to check if you are immune to these 3 diseases. The test detects the presence of antibodies that, in turn, suggests immunity (assuming there are no obvious signs of infection).


References

1. BBC News. (2019). The disease that returned from the past. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-47800438 [Accessed 22 May 2019].

2. Cdc.gov. (2019). Measles | Vaccination | CDC. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/measles/vaccination.html [Accessed 22 May 2019].

3. Wise, J. (2018). Child vaccination rates drop in England as MMR uptake falls for fourth year. BMJ, p.k3967.

4. BBC News. (2019). City region records spike in measles cases. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-48040787 [Accessed 22 May 2019].

5. nhs.uk. (2019). Measles outbreak: what to do. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/measles-outbreak-advice/ [Accessed 22 May 2019].


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