Measles

Measles is a highly contagious disease that can be life threatening. Find out what the symptoms are and how immunisation can protect you and your family.

There are currently outbreaks of measles in New Zealand. See 2019 measles outbreak for more information.

Planning to travel to Auckland? See our Travel advice.

Summary

  • Measles is highly contagious – and easily preventable.
  • It 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.

Stopping the spread

Measles is a highly infectious airborne virus which affects both children and adults. If you think you have measles, it’s important to call before visiting your doctor to avoid you spreading the virus in the waiting room.

If you’re feeling sick, you should 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.

By isolating yourself you will help protect vulnerable people including babies, pregnant women, cancer patients and others who are unable to be immunised and for whom the impact of the disease can be devastating.

If you catch measles, you can infect others from five days before the rash appears until five days after the rash appears (counting the day of rash onset as day 1).

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.

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)

Young children are usually vaccinated at 15 months and 4 years of age.

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

  • the first scheduled dose can be given from 12 months of age, with 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 15 months and 4 years). 

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.

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 aged 13 to 29 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 anaphylaxis 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.

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