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 in 100 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 in 100 deaths of people with measles.

One in 1000 people with measles develop inflammation of the brain (encephalitis ) - 15 in 100 of these people die and approximately 30 in 100 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 measles immunisation was available, about 90 in 100 people had measles by the age of 20.

Universal immunisation was introduced into New Zealand in 1969. For many years New Zealand had very poor immunisation coverage - less than half of eligible children were immunised. 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 in 100 people 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 MMR
  • 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. 

If you're unsure about whether your child has had MMR immunisation, or you can't find your records, you can check with your Well Child Tamariki Ora provider or Well Child book, or contact your family doctor.

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

How effective is immunisation against measles?

Approximately 90 to 95 in 100 people who receive 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 MMR immunisation?

Children usually have 2 doses of MMR - 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 MMR immunisation tends not to work as well in young infants.

Some adults should also have MMR:

  • those born after 1969 (when measles immunisation 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 MMR.

Who should not have the immunisation?

The following people should not have MMR immunisation:

  • 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 MMR immunisation without realising they were pregnant. 

Who should seek more advice before having MMR?

  • 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 MMR?

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

Can the MMR vaccine cause measles?

No.

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

Can MMR cause autism?

No.

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

For more information, see the following:

Does MMR 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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