Measles outbreaks highlight significance of vaccination

Highly contagious disease causes other serious health threats, doctors say

By Elizabeth Misson

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Recent measles outbreaks impacting communities in the U.S. have highlighted the severity of this dangerous disease.

According to Camille Sabella, M.D., a pediatric infectious disease expert at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, measles is a preventable disease because of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which has been recommended for young children for decades.

He said measles is dangerous because of the complications that it can bring.

“Complications of measles are fairly common and can be severe,” said Dr. Sabella. “The main ones we worry about are pneumonia, which can be primary measles pneumonia, or it can be a secondary bacterial pneumonia, complicating the measles virus.” 

Sabella said the other main complication that can result from measles is acute encephalitis, which is a swelling of the brain that can cause death.

Even children who survive encephalitis typically have some long-lasting neurodevelopmental problems.

Symptoms of measles typically begin with cold symptoms, coughing and red eyes, then quickly develop into a high fever.

The fever is accompanied by a bright red rash, which usually starts on the face, head, and neck, and spreads down to the trunk and the extremities.

Sabella said the rash typically lasts for about four to five days, and the fever lasts for a few days. 

And because measles is such a contagious virus, if it gets introduced into a community where not everyone is vaccinated, it can spread very rapidly.

Sabella said when we do a good job of vaccinating against diseases, people can become complacent about getting protected against them.

“We’ve really become very complacent in this country because we haven’t seen diseases like measles, polio, whooping cough, and certain types of bacterial meningitis,” he said. “And this complacency leads some to believe that these ‘one-time’ diseases are no longer around or that they were never severe in the first place. And I think, because of that, parents are more reluctant to vaccinate their kids, and now we’re starting to see some of the adverse effects of that.” 

For parents who are unsure if their child has received one or both doses of MMR, and records are not available, Sabella said it’s best to go ahead and get both doses of the vaccine to be certain that the child is protected. 

Cleveland Clinic News Service