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Measles is a serious viral illness

Measles was once considered a common childhood illness, but it is a very serious disease. Immunisation is effective in preventing the disease but hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are infected every year. People with measles can become very unwell and many require hospitalisation. In 2017, the World Health Organization estimates that 110,000 people around the world died due to measles.

Signs and symptoms of measles

Young child with a red, spotty rash over face, neck and bodyPeople who are exposed to measles will usually become sick after about 10 days, but it can take as little as seven and as many as 18 days for symptoms to appear.

The main symptoms of measles include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • runny nose
  • conjunctivitis (sore, red, eyes)
  • generally feeling unwell/tiredness
  • followed 3-4 days later by a non-itchy, spotty rash that starts on the face and neck and spreads to other parts of the body.

Up to one third of people with measles will have serious complications including:

  • Otitis media (middle ear infection)
  • diarrhoea (more common in infants)
  • pneumonia
  • encephalitis (swelling of the brain) (1 in 1000)

One in 100,000 people who get measles will develop chronic, progressive brain inflammation several years after infection. This severe complication is called sub-acute sclerosing panencephalitis and is fatal.

Measles is highly contagious, and spreads through the air

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases that affects humans. It is spread through the air when an infectious person breathes, coughs or sneezes.

People who have measles can spread the infection to others from one day before the onset of symptoms, until four days after the rash appears.

How contagious is measles?

If a person who doesn’t know they have measles is sitting in a large waiting room, coughing and sneezing, and there are 10 other people who are all susceptible to measles in the room, nine of them will develop the infection. Measles virus can stay in the air for short periods of time (around 15 minutes), so even if some of these people entered the room after the person with measles left, they could still become infected.

Measles is preventable

Measles is a vaccine preventable disease. Two doses of measles containing vaccine provides lifelong protection in 99 of 100 vaccinated people.

In Australia, the National Immunisation Program offers two doses to all children:

  • at 12 months as MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella)
  • at 18 months as MMRV vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella, varicella).

There were a number of changes to Australian Immunisation programs between the late 1960's and early 1970's when one dose of the mealses vaccine was first offered, and the 1990's when the important second dose was was introduced. This means that many adults may have unknowingly missed one, or both doses of measles vaccine and could be susceptible to infection if exposed to measles.

Most people born before 1966 are likely to have had measles as a child, and are generally considered to be immune.

NSW provides free MMR vaccine to people born during or after 1966, who haven’t had measles or two doses of measles vaccine. It is safe to receive more than two doses, so if you aren’t sure you had two doses in the past, you should see your doctor for a free dose. In NSW, people 16 years and older can now also access MMR from authorised pharmacists​, but this will incur a cost.

Vaccinating yourself and your family also helps to protect people who are at risk, such as children under 12 months of age and people with compromised immune systems – like those undergoing cancer therapy. This is known as herd immunity.

Measles is still a risk for Australians

Thanks to vaccination, measles is rare in Australia, but it still occurs.

Most cases of measles seen in NSW are in people who are returning or visiting from a country where measles is common or an outbreak is occurring or have been in contact with someone who was.

Measles is a common illness in many popular holiday destinations, such as the Philippines, India, Indonesia (including Bali) and Thailand. Measles is also common in parts of the Middle East and most of Africa, and large outbreaks have been occurring across Europe, South America and the United States of America in the past few years.

What happens when there is a measles case in NSW?

When someone is identified as having measles in NSW, public health staff work very quickly to identify the places they have been and other people who may have been exposed. Where they can, public health staff will contact people who may have been exposed to find out whether they are immune to measles and offer preventive therapy or advice.

If they are unable to identify people who have been exposed (such as when the person with measles has visited a large shopping centre or airport while infectious), an alert will be issued to let people know that they may have been exposed to measles.

Information regarding current alerts and known potential exposure sites is available on NSW measles alerts.

Act fast if you suspect measles

People who are exposed to measles and develop measles-like symptoms should seek medical attention.

Call ahead to the medical practice or emergency department and tell them about your symptoms, so they can limit your exposure to other people when you arrive.

More information

Current as at: Friday 18 January 2019
Contact page owner: Communicable Diseases