Measles

Measles is a highly contagious disease that can be life threatening. Measles is caused by a virus and is easily preventable with immunisation.

Summary

  • Measles affects both children and adults.
  • Two doses of the measles vaccine provides the most effective protection for yourself, your family and the wider community. After one dose of the MMR vaccine, about 95% of people are protected from measles. After two doses, more than 99% people are protected.
  • In New Zealand, if you were born in 1969 or later, you can get the measles vaccine for free.
  • Vaccination is particularly important if you are planning to travel anywhere overseas – to protect yourself and to help prevent outbreaks in New Zealand.

Measles complications

Measles can be life threatening: about 1 in 10 people with measles will need hospital treatment.

Measles can also lead to other complications, including:

  • ear infections (which can cause permanent hearing loss)
  • diarrhoea
  • pneumonia
  • seizures
  • swelling of the brain – this is rare, but can cause permanent brain damage or death.

Up to 30% of people with measles will develop complications – usually children under 5 and adults over the age of 20.

Measles during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, premature labour and low birth-weight babies.

Symptoms

The illness starts 7–18 days after you’ve been exposed.

First symptoms

  • A fever
  • A cough
  • A runny nose
  • Sore and watery ‘pink’ eyes
  • Sometimes small white spots on the back inner cheek of your mouth.

Day 3–7 of illness

A blotchy rash which tends to start on your face, behind the ears, before moving over your head and down your body. The rash lasts for up to a week.

Photo of a baby with the measles rash on its face.
Photo credit: Jim Goodson, M.P.H, used courtesy of the CDC/Molly Kurnit, M.P.H.

What to do if you or a family member has symptoms

If you think that you or a family member has symptoms of measles, it is important you ring your general practice or call Healthline on 0800 611 116, for advice as soon as possible.

It’s important to call before visiting your doctor because measles is easily passed on from one person to another. Phoning ahead helps ensure steps are taken to avoid you spreading measles in the waiting room.

You should also stay away from work, school or public places, to help prevent putting other people at risk. This also applies if you or a family member aren’t fully immunised and may have been in contact with someone with measles.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for measles. You can relieve the symptoms by taking paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve fever and aches, and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

In severe cases, you may need to go to hospital for treatment.

If you think that you or a family member has symptoms of measles, it is important you get advice as soon as possible. Contact your general practice or call Healthline on 0800 611 116.

It’s important to call before visiting your doctor because measles is easily passed on from one person to another. Phoning ahead helps ensure steps are taken to avoid you spreading measles in the waiting room.

You should also stay away from work, school or public places, to help prevent putting other people at risk. This also applies if you or a family member aren’t fully immunised and may have been in contact with someone with measles.

Prevention

Measles is one of the world’s most infectious diseases. The best protection against measles is the free measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The brand of MMR vaccine used in New Zealand is Priorix. See the Medsafe website for more information about Priorix (PDF, 52 KB)

From 1 October 2020 the MMR vaccine was moved from being given at 15 months and 4 years to being given at 12 months and 15 months.

In outbreak situations, the local Medical Officer of Health can advise that vaccination be given to younger children as follows:

  • the second scheduled dose able to be given as early as 1 month after the first
  • in a severe outbreak, an additional dose of measles vaccine can be given from 6 months of age. Babies immunised before they are 12 months old will still need 2 doses according to the schedule (at 12 months and 15 months). 

Catch up on your immunisations

It’s important to be up to date with measles immunisation, even if you’re an adult. By being immunised, you will not only be protecting yourself and your family – you’ll also stop the disease spreading in your community.

Your doctor or nurse can provide the vaccinations. Contact your family doctor to make an appointment. As of 2019, pharmacist vaccinators can also administer MMR vaccine to people aged 16–50 years.

  • One dose of MMR vaccine protects about 95 percent of people, and two doses protect about 99 percent. Because measles is so infectious, two doses are necessary to prevent outbreaks. 
  • The vaccine is free for everyone born from 1 January 1969. If you were born before then, you are likely to have had the disease as a child and therefore be immune.
  • People in their 30s and 40s are likely to have been given one dose as young children. A second dose was offered at age 11 from 1992, then at age 4 from 2001. 
  • Lower immunisation rates in the past mean that teenagers and young adults are at greatest risk of catching measles. People born between 1990–2007 are less likely to have been fully immunised as children.

If you’re unsure of your vaccination status you can check your Well Child Tamariki Ora or Plunket book, or contact your general practice. If you can’t find your records, vaccination is recommended.

Vaccination is particularly important if you are planning to travel anywhere overseas – to protect yourself and to help prevent outbreaks in New Zealand.

Who shouldn’t have the vaccine?

You shouldn’t get immunised against measles if you:

  • are pregnant
  • have had and anaphylactic reaction to MMR or are immunocompromised.

If you think you have been exposed to measles and are unable to have the vaccine, ask your doctor for advice. 

Pregnant women who think they have measles, or have come in contact with someone with measles, must call their general practice or lead maternity carer as soon as possible. If you were immunised against measles prior to becoming pregnant, you are almost certainly protected.

In this section

  • Measles has a more than 50% death rate for New Zealand children with low immunity, such as those receiving cancer treatment. To protect these children, it’s important we and our families are immunised so that we cannot spread the illness. Read more
  • Stories from parents whose children became sick with measles during the 2011 outbreak, and from medical officers of health who dealt with the outbreak. Read more
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