Measles: how to protect yourself and others

Overseas travellers caused possible exposures to measles in Bendigo, Ballarat and Melbourne earlier this year.

Overseas travellers caused possible exposures to measles in Bendigo, Ballarat and Melbourne earlier this year.

An alarming global surge in measles cases this year has caused a large increase in the number of deaths worldwide. In May, Victoria’s Acting Chief Health Officer announced seven Victorian residents had contracted measles from contact with two infected overseas travellers. So far this year there have been 132 confirmed cases of measles in Australia.

The good news:

If you have a normal immune system and have had measles in the past or have had two measles vaccinations, you are protected. If you are unsure, your GP can do a blood test to see if you have antibodies to protect against measles. You may be eligible for a free vaccine. Most people born in 1965 or earlier have immunity from having had measles.

The bad news:

Measles is a highly contagious viral illness that can cause serious complications and death. In our community there are people who are not protected against measles. This is because not everyone is a suitable candidate for a vaccine. This includes:

  • babies younger than 6 months whose mother is not protected

  • children 6 to 12 months who have not had a measles vaccine

  • people who have not had two measles vaccinations

  • people unable to have vaccinations for medical reasons

  • people with weakened immune systems (immunocompromised). This includes people with certain inherited conditions as well as cancer, transplant and HIV/AIDS patients, and other people who take immunosuppressive medication

Pregnant women who are not protected against measles should not have a measles (MMR) vaccination during their pregnancy. They should speak to their doctor if they have concerns.

While measles is rare in Australia because of high vaccination rates, major outbreaks in Asia, Europe, the US and Africa mean travellers returning to Australia may bring the illness with them.

How does vaccination protect us?

Vaccines cause our bodies to produce antibodies that are ready to fight an infection when we are exposed to it.

At least 95 per cent of people need to be vaccinated to ensure sufficient protection (herd immunity) across the population to stop the spread of measles and protect those who cannot be vaccinated.

Planning an overseas trip?

People travelling abroad should check they are properly protected against measles before departure; this includes babies not yet vaccinated under the National Immunisation Program (NIP) Schedule. Under the NIP, babies are routinely vaccinated against measles at 12 months of age and then again at 18 months. But the Australian Immunisation Handbook has recently updated its advice:

‘The recommended age at which infants can receive MMR vaccine in special circumstances has been lowered from 9 months to 6 months. Infants as young as 6 months of age can receive MMR vaccine for travel to highly endemic areas, during outbreaks and as post-exposure prophylaxis.’

Post-exposure prophylaxis is when a vaccine is given to a child who has been exposed to measles in an attempt to stop them developing the disease.

(Please note: infants younger than 11 months who have an early measles vaccination will still require their scheduled 12 month and 18 month MMR vaccinations under the NIP. Early vaccination for infants travelling to highly endemic areas is not funded under the NIP or Immunisation Schedule Victoria.)

It’s a good idea to bring your family's vaccination records with you when you speak to your doctor regarding measles and travel vaccinations prior to departure overseas.

Australia’s Department of Health advises it’s safe to have additional doses of measles vaccine if you are unsure of your vaccine status. Ask your doctor if you are eligible for a free MMR vaccine.

* Supply is currently unavailable in Victoria for MMR vaccines not provided free under government-funded programs. Private prescription supplies are expected to be available again in late October. Supplies of the measles vaccine are available under the NIP and Immunisation Schedule Victoria programs.

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What is measles?

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that typically causes a red skin rash and fever. Other symptoms include:

  • severe cough

  • malaise (body discomfort or weakness)

  • runny nose

  • red watery eyes (conjunctivitis)

The rash typically begins on the face and neck and spreads to other parts of the body.

Measles can cause serious complications that may result in death. Such complications include:

  • pneumonia

  • encephalitis (swelling of the brain). Encephalitis can also cause seizures and brain injury leading to intellectual impairment.

Other complications of measles include:

  • infection of the middle ear

  • deafness

  • adverse effects on pregnant women, including miscarriage

How measles spreads

The measles virus is spread by contact with droplets (or by touching infected surfaces) when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Anyone nearby who is not immune to measles has a very high chance of contracting the disease. Measles has an incubation period of 10 to 14 days and a person is potentially infectious from about 5 days prior to the appearance of a rash to 4 days afterwards.

I’m not protected, should I be worried?

About 10 per cent of measles cases involve complications, and those most at risk of complications are:

  • people with a chronic illness

  • children under 5 years

  • adults

What to do if you think you have a measles rash

Campaspe’s Nurse Team Leader and nurse Immuniser Chris Green advises you follow practice protocol to minimise the risk of transmission to others:

  • call Campaspe Family Practice immediately on 5422 2877 and explain you think you (or a family member) has a measles rash

  • on arrival at the practice, park in the 5-minute parking bay, wait in your car and phone reception

  • a GP will come out to your car, assess the rash and let you know what you need to do next

If your doctor thinks you have measles, they will take a blood test and nose and throat swabs to confirm the diagnosis. Because measles is highly contagious, your doctor is required to notify the Department of Health and Human Services if they suspect you have measles.

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