Measles immunisation

Measles immunisation

Measles is a serious disease and very easy to catch. Make sure your kids are immunised against measles.

Key points to remember

  • measles can be a serious disease
  • it's caused by a virus
  • measles is very easy to catch
  • immunisation is the only way to prevent measles

What is measles?

Measles can be a serious disease caused by a virus. It spreads very easily from one person to another. It is also known by the name morbilli or rubeola.

Measles is the most common vaccine-preventable cause of death among children throughout the world.

For more information about the disease, see the measles page on this website.

How serious is measles?

Children usually look and feel quite unwell and miserable with measles. They have a high fever, a cough, a runny nose, loss of appetite and sore red eyes followed by a rash. 

In about 30 percent of reported cases of measles, people experience one or more complications, including:

  • diarrhoea in 6 in 100 people
  • ear infections in 7 in 100 people
  • pneumonia in 6 in 100 people

Pneumonia is responsible for 60 percent of the deaths of people with measles.

One in 1000 people with measles develop inflammation of the brain (encephalitis ) - 15 percent of these people die and approximately one third are left with permanent brain damage.

One in 100,000 people who have had measles will, years later, develop a serious brain inflammation called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). This serious complication always results in death.

Death occurs in about one to 2 out of 1,000 reported cases of measles overall in western countries.

How common is measles?

Before a measles vaccine was developed, about 90 percent of the whole population would have had measles by the age of 20.

Universal vaccination was introduced into New Zealand in 1969. For many years New Zealand had very poor immunisation coverage with less than half of eligible children receiving the vaccine. As a result, there were regular epidemics of measles. As our immunisation rates have improved, the outbreaks have become less frequent and much smaller.  If we can achieve our target of 95 percent of the population immune, we can get rid of measles altogether. Until then, outbreaks are likely to continue.

The World Health Organization has targets to eradicate measles worldwide. In countries which have consistently high immunisation coverage, measles has been eliminated from the population. 

How do you catch measles?

Measles is very easy to catch. It spreads through the air by infectious droplets through coughing, sneezing and talking, or by touching a surface with infected saliva or mucus. 

It usually takes 10 – 12 days from contact with someone with measles to the first symptom appearing but it can take up to 18 days. This is called the incubation period.

Who is most at risk from measles?

  • all children who have not received at least one dose of the MMR vaccine
  • anyone with certain immune deficiencies is at special risk - these children often can't be immunised and rely on protection from those around them
  • pregnant women - measles during pregnancy increases the risk of premature labour, miscarriage, and low birth weight infants

How do you prevent measles?

Immunisation given on time is the only way to prevent measles. 

Which vaccines protect against measles?

The combined measles, mumps, rubella vaccine (MMR) is the only vaccine available to prevent measles in New Zealand.

How effective is the vaccine against measles?

Approximately 90 to 95 percent of those given one dose of MMR are protected. Those who do not develop immunity after the first MMR dose, almost always do so after the second dose. 2 doses offers the best protection.

Who should have the vaccine?

2 doses of the MMR vaccine are usually given, one dose at 15 months of age and a second at 4 years of age.

During a measles outbreak babies as young as 6 months of age can be immunised on the advice of a Medical Officer of Health. These babies will still need MMR at 15 months and 4 years of age because the vaccine tends not to work as well in young infants.

Some adults should also have the MMR vaccine:

  • those born after 1969 (when the measles vaccine was introduced to New Zealand) who lack evidence of immunity to measles - adults born before 1969 are highly likely to have been exposed to measles
  • those travelling to areas where measles is common (endemic) who do not have immunity

People with an allergy to egg CAN have the MMR vaccine.

Who should not have the vaccine?

The following people should not have the MMR vaccine:

  • pregnant women
  • anyone who has an illness, or is taking medicines, which affect their immune system 
  • babies under 12 months of age 
  • anyone who has experienced a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a previous dose of the MMR vaccine
  • anyone who has received another live vaccine, including chickenpox or BCG, within the previous month

Delay MMR if your child has a sudden severe illness with high fever (over 38 degrees Celsius). The presence of a minor infection is not a reason to delay immunisation.

If you find out you are pregnant after having MMR immunisation, talk to your family doctor. But, research has found no injury to the unborn child when women have had the vaccine without realising they were pregnant. 

Who should seek more advice before having the vaccine?

  • anyone who has received human immunoglobulin or other blood product within the previous 11 months
  • anyone who is HIV-positive
  • anyone who is unsure if they have an immune deficiency or taking medication to suppress their immune system
  • anyone who developed low platelets (idiopathic thrombocytopenia or ITP) after a previous dose of MMR

How safe is the vaccine?

The risk of the MMR vaccine causing serious harm is extremely rare. MMR vaccine is considerably safer than getting measles. See Measles complications vs side effects of MMR vaccine.

Can the MMR vaccine cause measles?

No.

It can cause a very mild, non-infectious rash about 5 to 12 days after immunisation.

Can the MMR vaccine cause autism?

No.

Extensive research shows there is no evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism, Crohn's disease or ADHD.

For more information, see the following:

Does the MMR vaccine contain thiomersal (or mercury)?

No.

This page was produced in collaboration with IMAC (Immunisation Advisory Centre) and has been adapted from the IMAC fact sheet for parents and caregivers.

This page last reviewed 12 May 2016.
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