Measles frequently asked questions

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What is measles?

Measles is an extremely contagious viral infection and can be more serious than people may think. Of the people infected with measles in 2011, more than one in six who caught it needed hospital treatment. One in three people with measles develops complications, including ear infections, pneumonia or diarrhoea. Immunisation is the best way to protect you and others from the disease.

Who can catch measles?

It’s not just babies and young children who can get measles – older children, teenagers and adults who are not fully immunised are also at risk. Around 30 percent of the measles cases in 2011 were in people aged 20 and over. Adults aged 44 years and over (born before the measles vaccine became available in 1969) are considered at lower risk because they were probably exposed to measles as a child.

Anyone with a weakened immune system, for example, people who are receiving chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer, or people who take high-dose steroid medications, are at higher risk of severe measles infection. Pregnant women who are not immunised and who get measles are at risk of miscarriage, still birth and low birth weights. Non-immune pregnant women should not be immunised during pregnancy, but it is very important their family and close contacts are immunised to protect the pregnant mother and unborn baby.

How is it spread?

Measles is very infectious. It’s spread through the air by sneezing or coughing. You only need to be in a room for a few minutes to spread the measles virus through breathing. One person with measles can pass it to at least 13 other people who are not immune. People don’t necessarily know they have measles until they feel sick. You can be infectious for four days before symptoms appear.

How do I know if I have measles?

Children and adults with measles often feel very sick. The symptoms are:

  • at first, a fever, runny nose, sore red eyes and white spots inside the mouth
  • after a few days, a red blotchy rash which lasts for up to one week. The rash usually starts on the face and spreads to the rest of the body.

What to do if you suspect measles

Should I see a doctor?

Yes but phone ahead first. This helps to ensure people with measles do not end up sitting in a waiting room, potentially spreading the illness to others. You can get free health advice from a registered nurse 24 hours a day from Healthline on 0800 611 116 if you have any questions.

How do I protect myself and my family from measles?

Measles can’t easily be treated once you get it, so the best way to prevent the disease is through immunisation with the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. MMR is free to anyone who needs it. Many people require treatment for complications the disease can cause – sometimes in hospital.

What should I do if I have come into contact with someone who has measles?

  • If you or your child are not immunised – you may be advised to stay away from work, school and public places for 14 days to ensure you/your child do not become infected and pass measles to others.
  • Call your GP or Healthline on 0800 611 116 as soon as possible for advice. Information for people who have come in contact with measles is also available on the Auckland Public Health Unit website and on the Waikato District Health Board website.
  • If you are immunised – you do not need to be isolated and can carry on with your normal activities.
  • If you are not sure whether you or your child are fully immunised:
    • Check your child’s Well Child/Tamariki Ora My Health Book.
    • Check your own records or call your GP. If your child is not immunised with at least one dose of the MMR vaccine, please get your child immunised as soon as possible.
  • If your child has had one dose, ask your GP when they can have their second dose to have full protection.
  • If your child is immunised appropriately for their age they do not need to be isolated and can carry on with normal activities like school.

Where can I find out more?

If you have concerns about someone that is unwell, please call your GP, practice nurse or Healthline 0800 611 116 for free health advice. Healthline is a free 24-hour Telephone Health Information Service for all families.

Get immunised

Immunisation is the best way to protect against the disease. If you or any children in your care are not up to date with immunisations, then contact your GP or practice nurse and arrange to catch up as soon as possible.

What is the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine?

The MMR vaccine is an injection that immunises people against measles, mumps and rubella. The vaccine is free for anyone who needs it – this includes the visit to the doctor.

MMR is given in two doses, normally at 15 months and 4 years of age, which gives over 95 percent protection. However, in areas where there has been a rise in measles cases, as in Auckland this year, it is recommended that all children from age 12 months who have not had one dose of MMR should receive this as soon as possible. Children should also receive their second dose as soon as possible (at least 28 days after the first dose), rather than waiting until age 4 years. The vaccine is also given to older children and adults if this immunisation was missed when they were younger. It’s never too late to get immunised. Everyone born from 1 January 1969 should have had 2 doses of MMR vaccine to get full protection against measles.

How effective is MMR?

Over 90 percent of people are protected with one dose. This increases to 95 percent, if people have two doses. By getting immunised you are not only protecting yourself or your child – you’ll also stop this disease from spreading.

Who should not receive the MMR vaccination?

Some people cannot receive the MMR vaccine. But it is important that their family and close contacts are immunised to help protect them.

  • Pregnant women should not receive the vaccine.
  • Anyone with a weakened immune system, such as cancer patients receiving treatment, should not receive the vaccine.
  • Anyone who has had an anaphylactic reaction to gelatin, or the antibiotic neomycin, should not receive the vaccine.

Is the MMR vaccine safe?

  • MMR vaccine has an excellent safety record and there is no increased risk from receiving the vaccine more than once.
  • The vaccine is made using a protein related to egg. Evidence shows that it is safe to give the MMR vaccine to people with egg allergies, even those who have a very severe reaction to eggs. Your GP can make arrangements to give the vaccine safely, in hospital if necessary.
  • Good international scientific evidence shows there is no connection between MMR and autism or bowel disease.
  • MMR vaccine does not contain thiomersal (mercury).

What about reactions to MMR?

  • It’s common to get mild reactions like pain at the injection site, but these reactions are usually not as serious as the complications that measles can lead to. Serious reactions to immunisation can happen but they are rare.
  • You should be fully protected against measles up to two weeks after having MMR.
  • Your child may develop a fever, a measles-like rash or go off their food usually about 7–12 days after immunisation. This occurs in about 1–3 per 100 children.
  • About one in every 3000 immunised young children may have a fit caused by the fever. This is called a febrile convulsion and can also happen in younger children with a fever due to any cause. The rate of febrile convulsions caused by getting the measles disease itself is much higher at 1 in every 200 children.
  • Fewer than one child in a million develops encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) after the MMR vaccine. However, if a child who hasn't been immunised catches measles, the chance is much higher at 1 in 1000.
  • Adults are less likely to get feverish reactions after the MMR vaccine.
  • You can find more information about reactions to MMR and a comparison with the complications measles can cause at the Immunisation Advisory Centre website.

Who is eligible for free MMR?

The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is free for anyone who needs it. For more information, please contact your family doctor or GP or phone the free immunisation helpline 0800 IMMUNE (0800 466 863).

Do I need to be immunised against measles?

People born before 1969 or who have received two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) or who have had confirmed measles in the past are considered to be immune to measles. Adults born from 1 January 1969 who are unsure whether they are immune should check with their family doctor or practice nurse. For school children and adults who have only had one MMR vaccination, now is a good time to see your family doctor or practice nurse for a second. If your child has had the first MMR immunisation, you can bring the second one forward – talk to your doctor or practice nurse.

Where can I find out more?

If you have questions or concerns following immunisation please call your GP, practice nurse or Healthline 0800 611 116 for free health advice. Healthline is a free 24-hour Telephone Health Information Service for all families. For more general information about immunisation please call the Immunisation Advisory Centre’s free helpline 0800 IMMUNE (0800 466 863), go to the YourHealth Immunisation section or to the Immunisation Advisory Centre website.

What should I do if I am pregnant?

  • Non-immunised women who become ill with measles while pregnant risk miscarriage, premature labour and low birth weight infants.
  • If you were not immunised against measles prior to becoming pregnant, you should not receive the MMR vaccine during pregnancy. However, it is important that people you are in close contact with are immunised so encourage close friends, family and work colleagues to get immunised to help protect your unborn child. Also, remember to get immunised after your pregnancy.
  • If you were immunised against measles prior to becoming pregnant, you are almost certainly protected. But it is still important that people you are in close contact with are also immunised, so encourage close friends, family and work colleagues to help protect your unborn child.
  • Pregnant women who think they have measles, or have come in contact with someone with measles, must call their GP or lead maternity carer as soon as possible.
  • Women of child bearing age should avoid pregnancy for one month after having a dose of the MMR vaccine.
  • Breastfeeding mothers can receive the MMR vaccine safely.

Advice for teenagers and adults

I thought measles was a child’s disease?

Measles is a disease that can affect anyone in the community that is not immune – immunity is gained through either having the disease or being immunised. Prior to immunisation programmes most people caught measles as young children. These days, immunisation programmes have mostly stopped the disease circulating in communities so some adults may not have been exposed to the disease and may have missed being vaccinated.

I think I had at least one MMR shot but can’t be sure – what should I do?

If you are not sure it is safer to get the vaccine, two doses a month apart.

But I don’t even remember who the doctor might have been?

It doesn’t matter – you can still have the MMR immunisation now.

Is it safe to get immunised with MMR if I may have already had an immunisation against measles in the past?

Yes. If you did have the vaccine your body will ‘remember’ that and will recognise a further vaccine, so you are very unlikely to get any serious reactions. There is no risk of overdose. The MMR vaccine will give you protection against measles, mumps and rubella.

Will I get a reaction from getting immunised?

Mild temporary reactions are common. Serious reactions are rare. You can find out more on risks and benefits at the Immunisation Advisory Centre website.

If I haven’t caught measles by now, surely I’m immune?

Not necessarily. Since 1969 when measles immunisation was introduced, the disease stopped circulating as widely and you may not have been exposed.

I was born before 1969 – how can you be sure I am immune?

Prior to 1969 we did not have a national vaccination campaign and as measles is so infectious, it is very likely people were exposed to the virus – as a result it is very rare to see any measles in people born prior to 1969 as they have already been exposed to it as children. However, if you have concerns about whether you are immune, please talk to your GP or contact the Immunisation Advisory Centre.

Should I still have a vaccination as a precaution, even though I was born before 1969?

The MMR vaccine is available free to anyone who needs it. Talk to your GP or practice nurse.