On the heels of a measles outbreak in Washington, many people have questions about whether or not they can get measles as an adult, USA Today reported. Because it's rare in the U.S. today, you might not recognize the symptoms of measles as they are similar to a number of other illnesses. Symptoms of measles, which is a respiratory illness, include cough, runny nose, red eyes, a rash of tiny red spots, diarrhea, ear infection, and a high fever. While most people recover from measles, it can lead to pneumonia, permanent brain damage, deafness, and even death, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported. The virus is spread similar to cold and flu, through coughing and sneezing.
The good news is that if you received the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine as a child, you're protected from measles for life. The CDC said on its website that the recommended two doses of the MMR vaccine is 97 percent effective in preventing measles, and one dose is 93 percent effective. While the measles virus has been mostly eradicated in the U.S., unvaccinated people who travel internationally can bring the virus home with them. Unvaccinated visitors to the U.S. can also spread measles, according to the CDC. Most children receive the MMR vaccine by the time they are 15 months and get a booster by the time they are 6.
However, the anti-vaccination movement, which stemmed from fear that vaccines were linked to autism — a false link that has been thoroughly debunked — left some people vulnerable to measles, the website History of Vaccines reported. The most vulnerable people are those can't be vaccinated for medical reasons. States most at risk for measles right now, according to the CDC, are: New York, Washington, Texas, Illinois, and California. Outbreaks have also been reported in Georgia, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Oregon.
Vaccinations are important because they create what's know as herd immunity. This means that enough people are vaccinated to protect those who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons. In 2015, Law & Order: SVU addressed this issue in its episode "Granting Immunity." In the episode, an unvaccinated teen contracts measles while traveling and spreads the illness to other unvaccinated kids at his school. A child exposed to measles by one of the teens is in the doctor's office with Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her son Noah, who hasn't received his vaccine due to a compromised immune system. Noah catches measles and almost dies. If all of the teens in question had been vaccinated, Noah would not have caught the virus. This is how herd immunity, also known as community immunity, works.
If you plan to travel internationally, or to a state with an active measles outbreak, it's important to ensure you are vaccinated. If you weren't vaccinated as a child, and you can receive vaccines, you can still get your MMR vaccine. "MMR is an attenuated (weakened) live virus vaccine. This means that after injection, the viruses cause a harmless infection in the vaccinated person with very few, if any, symptoms before they are eliminated from the body," the CDC explained.
"The person’s immune system fights the infection caused by these weakened viruses, and immunity (the body’s protection from the virus) develops." Even if you are vaccinated, three in 10 people will still contract measles. If you're one of them, you'll experience milder symptoms and are less likely to spread the virus. If you suspect you have measles, see your doctor ASAP, and make sure to wear a mask in the waiting room to protect others.