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An outbreak of measles near the north Texas city of Fort Worth points out that the once-common childhood infection has not gone away. Here is what you need to know to recognize measles if it strikes your family, and what to do if strikes your family.

No fewer than 21 cases of measles in children and adults aged 4 to 44 have been linked to a suburban Fort Worth, Texas mega-church that has hastily organized measles vaccination clinics in hopes of keeping the infection from spreading.

Writing on the church website, Eagle Mountain International Church pastor Terri Pearsons, daughter of famed evangelist Kenneth Copeland, urged parishioners to get vaccinated if they have not been vaccinated already, but also noted that if they "think they have this covered by their household of faith" not to do it.

Whether the measles outbreak in Texas points to a near-term epidemic in the rest of the USA is not yet known, but the measles virus has never really gone away. Most years there are only about 100 cases of measles in the United States, but there have been recent years in which up to 100,000 American children are infected.

Measles Is Still a Deadly Disease

According to the World Health Organization, worldwide 30,000,000 individuals, the greatest number of them children under the age of 5, comes down with measles. Between 30,000 and 50,000 children per year are left blind by the disease. In the world as a whole, every year over 1,000,000 children die of measles.

What Is Measles?

Measles is more than just a disease that causes the skin to break out in red spots. Also known as rubeloa, this viral infection primarily affects the respiratory system, but also causes a red rash. (German measles, also known as rubella, is a different disease.) Measles doesn't cause any symptoms at all for 1 to 2 weeks  after someone contracts the virus. For 1 or 2 days before there are any symptoms at all, someone who has measles is infectious.

Usually about 11 days after infection there are:

  • An initial bout of high fever (often greater than 104o F [40o C]) with loss of appetite and severe fatigue, which lasts for about 4 days days, followed by
  • Cough, conjunctivitis (eye irritation), and coryza (crusty mucus in the nostrils and around the eyes), which lasts for 2 or 3 days, followed by
  • Small spots (Koplik spots) inside the cheeks, lasting 1 or 2 days, followed by
  • A general rash over the face and neck and spreading to the hands and feet, lasting for 2 or 3 days.

By the time measles causes the well-known rash, the person who has it has been sick for at least a week. By the time the rash and other symptoms finally resolve, it has been about a month since the initial infection. Someone who has measles is contagious from about 2 days before the first symptoms until about 4 days after the appearance of the rash.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Barrabeig I, Rovira A, Rius C, Muñoz P, Soldevila N, Batalla J, Domínguez A. Effectiveness of measles vaccination for control of exposed children. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2011 Jan. 30(1):78-80. doi: 10.1097/INF.0b013e3181f7001c.
  • Garenne M. Sex differences in measles mortality: a world review. Int J Epidemiol. Jun 1994. 23(3):632-42.
  • Marin M, Nguyen HQ, Langidrik JR, Edwards R, Briand K, Papania MJ, Seward JF, LeBaron CW. Measles transmission and vaccine effectiveness during a large outbreak on a densely populated island: implications for vaccination policy. Clin Infect Dis. 2006 Feb 1.42(3):315-9. Epub 2005 Dec 15.
  • Photo courtesy of Dave Haygarth by Flickr :
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