Measles And MMR Vaccine For Children: What Parents Should Know

If your child is suffering from flu-like symptoms and has rashes all over her body, she may be suffering from measles. Read on to know more about this disease and how the MMR vaccine can prevent it.

By Amrita Gracias

Measles And MMR Vaccine For Children: What Parents Should Know

As parents, one of our primary concerns is the health of our children. However, despite our best efforts, our children do fall sick. They are vulnerable to contracting infections and deadly diseases, especially in early childhood, as their immune systems isn't fully developed. One of the diseases that infects a sizeable number of children worldwide is measles.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in the recent years, there has been a significant decrease in cases of measles in India,. In fact, with several campaigns to immunise children with the MMR vaccine across the country, the concerned authorities even hope to eradicate the disease in the near future.

However, the WHO also reports that children continue to get infected with the measles virus, and that one-third of measles-related deaths among children occur in India. Quite an alarming situation, isn't it? Therefore, as a parent, it is necessary for you to know all you can about this contagious disease.

What is measles?

It is an acute, contagious respiratory infection that causes flu-like symptoms and rashes all over the body. It is caused by Measles morbillivirus, a single stranded RNA virus which typically infects young children. Measles is an endemic disease, that is, it continues to be prevalent in a particular environment, community or area.

Measles symptoms

After a child is infected, the measles virus incubates for about 10 to 14 days . During this time, the child usually shows no symptoms.

The disease finally reveals itself with flu-like symptoms which last for about two to three days. Symptoms include dry cough, runny nose, sneezing, high fever, and red and watery eyes. It is also not unusual for tiny spots to appear within the mouth, on the insides of the cheeks, in the initial stages. These spots are referred to as Koptik spots and are characteristic of the early phase of measles. They are white in colour and surrounded by a red ring. 

The rash over the body usually breaks out about three to five days after the first symptoms appear. And, sometimes the high fever (up to 104° F) can continue over this period. This rash normally begins on the face and then spreads to the neck, torso, arms, legs and feet.

Is measles contagious?

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease. The virus is released into the air with droplets of mucus when the infected individual coughs or sneezes. So, an individual infected with the measles virus can infect most of those around him who are not immune to the virus.

The infectious period of measles begins about four days before the rashes appear and ends when the rashes have been present for about four days. Therefore, it is suggested that, during this period, the infected individual be kept in isolation to prevent the spread of the disease.

Measles treatment and prevention

Since measles is caused by a virus, there is no specific treatment for the disease. Usually, only supportive treatment is provided in the form of medications to reduce fever and relieve bodyaches. An antibiotic is prescribed only if some other infection develops during the course of the disease. Children tend to develop Vitamin A deficiency during measles infection. Studies have shown treatment with Vitamin A during measles reduces chances of complications and helps in early recovery. However, during the course of the disease, children should be kept well-hydrated and rested.

A measles infection lasts about two to three weeks. The rash gradually fades, beginning from the face, then from the torso, and finally from the legs and feet.

Once infected with the measles virus, an individual usually develops lifelong immunity and would rarely contract it again.

Complications from measles

Children are cured of measles once the disease has passed through all the stages. Yet, at times, measles is known to cause a few complications. Some of them are:

  • Ear infection: A bacterial ear infection is one of the most common complications that can develop alongside measles.
  • Bronchitis / laryngitis: Measles can cause inflammation of the voice box or of the inner walls that line the main air passage of the lungs.
  • Pneumonia: This is another complication that children with low immunity can easily develop. In rare cases, it can turn fatal.
  • Diarrhoea / vomiting: The measles virus targets the epithelial and white blood cells, which are vital elements of the body’s immune system, sometimes leading to a secondary infection.
  • Eye infection: Some patients can also experience conjunctivitis
  • Febrile seizures: Fits caused by high fever can occur in younger children.

However, at times, measles can cause more serious complications than the above-mentioned. These include:

  • Encephalitis – infection in the brain
  • Hepatitis – liver complications
  • Thrombocytopenia – low platelet count affecting body’s ability to clot
  • Squint – nerves and muscles of the eyes are affected
  • Meningitis – infection of the membrane surrounding the brain

Women infected with the virus during pregnancy can experience miscarriage or still birth. There is also the risk of the baby being born premature and with low birth weight.

Who is at most risk?

Those who have the highest risk of contracting the measles virus are:

  • Children aged less than two years
  • Children with poor diet and low immunity
  • Teens / adults
  • Pregnant women

The MMR vaccine

The best and the most effective way of preventing your child from contracting measles is to have him vaccinated with the MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) vaccine. This is a combined vaccine that helps prevent all these three diseases. The MMR vaccine is administered world over and has played a key role in helping reduce the number of measles cases and related deaths. It provides absolute immunity since those who receive the vaccine are considered protected for life.

MMR vaccine schedule

The MMR vaccine must be administered by a registered paediatrician. It is usually given in two doses to children — the first at 9 months of age and the second at 15 months.

Adults who did not receive the vaccine as a child need to get it only if there is an outbreak of the disease or they are travelling to an area where there is an outbreak of measles. Adults are given the vaccine as a subcutaneous injection in two doses — the second a month after the first.

MMR vaccine side effects

There are no serious problems or adverse effects linked to the MMR vaccine. However, in rare cases, it does cause some allergic reactions. The usual side effects of the vaccine include mild fever, rash and joint pain, which last only for about two or three days.

MMR vaccine cost

In India, the MMR vaccine is manufactured by some of the leading pharmaceutical companies and is reasonably priced between Rs. 150 and 600.

MMR vaccine contraindications

Usually, the MMR vaccine is not administered when the child is sick with a cold or any other minor illness. It is also not given if she has received any other vaccine in the past month.

Sometimes, the vaccine needs to be avoided altogether; for instance, when the child:

  • has had a severe allergic reaction to the first dose or a component of the vaccine (gelatin or the antibiotic)
  • suffers from a serious disorder like cancer
  • is undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • is under medication that includes steroids or those that weaken the immune system

The MMR vaccine is not given to pregnant women either.

Getting your child vaccinated is the best way to prevent measles. MMR vaccination is also important because, if your child is not vaccinated and contracts the disease, she can spread cause an outbreak of the disease. So, go ahead and get your child vaccinated, if you haven’t already, to keep this deadly infection at bay!

Validated by Dr Tushar Parikh, Neonatologist and Paediatrician, Motherhood Hospital, Pune

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