Measles: Back again

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Despite widespread vaccination against measles in the United States, outbreaks continue to occur. Clinicians should be able to recognize its distinctive clinical picture so that isolation measures can be instituted promptly, susceptible contacts immunized, and public health agencies notified. Vaccination is safe for most people and should be strongly promoted for all healthy children.


  • Patients with measles are usually very sick with high fever, cough, rhinitis, and conjunctivitis.
  • Koplik spots—small bluish-white lesions on the buccal mucosa—are usually evident only in the first few days of illness. Soon after, a patchy red rash develops, starting with the face and neck, then spreading to the entire body.
  • Measles can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, brain damage, and death.
  • Suspected cases should be isolated and susceptible contacts vaccinated or given immunoglobulin if at high risk of developing severe disease.
  • The diagnosis should be confirmed by serologic testing with measles-specific immunoglobulin M antibody.
  • Vaccination confers lifelong immunity and is recommended for all healthy children in two doses: the first at 12 to 15 months of age and the second at the time of school entry.



Measles continues to rear its head in the United States. Because it is so contagious, even the few cases introduced by travelers quickly spread to susceptible contacts. Life-threatening and severely disabling complications can occur, although this is rare. Widespread immunization and prompt recognition and isolation of contacts are key to controlling outbreaks.

This article reviews the epidemiology of measles, describes its distinctive clinical picture, and provides recommendations for infection control and prevention, including in immunosuppressed populations.


Up to 90% of susceptible people develop measles after exposure, making it one of the most contagious of infections. The virus is transmitted by airborne spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or by direct contact with infectious droplets. The virus can remain infectious in the air or on a surface for up to 2 hours.1

Worldwide, an estimated 20 million people are infected with measles each year, and 146,000 die of complications. In 1980, before widespread vaccination, 2.6 million deaths were attributable to measles annually. In the United States before the introduction of measles vaccine in 1963, measles was a significant cause of disease and death: an estimated 3 to 4 million people were infected annually, although only about 549,000 were reported. There were 48,000 hospitalizations, 1,000 cases of permanent brain damage from measles encephalitis, and 495 deaths annually.2

Outbreaks still occur regularly

In 2000, measles was declared eliminated from the United States,3 but annual outbreaks have occurred since then as a result of cases imported from other countries and their subsequent transmission to unvaccinated people. From 2001 to 2012, a median of four outbreaks and 60 cases were reported annually to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.4

In January 2015, a multistate measles outbreak originating in Disneyland in California was recognized. As of April 17, when the outbreak was declared over, 111 measles cases from seven states had been linked to this outbreak.5 Of the evaluable cases, 44% were in unvaccinated people and 38% were in those whose vaccination status was unknown or undocumented. The median age of patients was 21, and 20% required hospitalization.

This outbreak, as well as four other smaller US outbreaks the same year, underscores the transmissibility of the virus in populations containing only a small percentage of unvaccinated people.6


The incubation period for measles infection is 7 to 21 days, with most cases becoming apparent 10 to 12 days after exposure. Measles should be suspected in a patient with the following clinical features whose history indicates susceptibility and exposure (ie, an unimmunized person with a history of exposure or travel):

Severe acute respiratory illness. Measles usually presents as an acute respiratory viral illness, which typically lasts 2 to 4 days. The illness involves high fevers, malaise, anorexia, and the “three Cs”: cough, coryza (rhinitis), and conjunctivitis. Patients usually appear sicker than those with more common viral illnesses.

Koplik spots From the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Figure 1. Koplik spots (arrow), indicating the onset of measles, in a patient who presented 3 days before the eruption of skin rash.

Koplik spots, which are pathognomonic for measles, are seen in the first few days of illness. They are bluish-white, slightly raised lesions on an erythematous base on the buccal mucosa, usually opposite the first molar (Figure 1). Spots can also be seen on the soft palate, conjunctiva, and vaginal mucosa. Koplik spots usually disappear after a few days and often are not appreciable at the time of evaluation.

Measles From the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Figure 2. Measles on the 3rd day of rash.

Discrete erythematous patches develop on the face and neck a day after the appearance of Koplik spots. This rash becomes more confluent as it spreads to involve the entire body (Figure 2). It typically lasts for 3 to 7 days, then fades in a similar pattern. The confluent nature of this rash and its spread from the face and neck to the entire body are characteristic of measles. Patients are highly contagious from 4 days before the onset of the rash to 4 days after.


Those at highest risk for measles complications are infants, children under age 5, adults over age 20, pregnant women, and immunosuppressed individuals.7

Pneumonia—either a primary measles pneumonia or a secondary viral or bacterial pneumonia—is the most common cause of death.8,9 Viruses complicating measles are typically adenovirus and herpes simplex virus. Bacteria causing secondary infection are usually Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae and, less commonly, gram-negative bacteria.

Laryngotracheobronchitis (croup) is the second most common cause of death, with bacteria and viruses similar to those causing measles-related pneumonia.

Otitis media is the most common complication of measles. Other respiratory complications include mastoiditis, pneumothorax, and mediastinal emphysema.

Acute measles encephalitis occurs in 1 measles case per 1,000 and often results in permanent brain damage. During the convalescent phase of the illness, fever again emerges, with the development of headaches, seizures, and altered consciousness.10

Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis is a rare fatal degenerative disease of the central nervous system caused by a persistent infection with a defective measles virus. The precise pathophysiology is unclear, but it is thought that mutations of the viral genome lead to altered cellular immunity.11 The condition typically occurs 7 to 10 years after the initial measles infection, particularly in those who developed measles before age 2. Clinical manifestations include behavioral disturbances, intellectual deterioration, and myoclonic seizures, slowly progressing to a vegetative state and death.12

Other complications of measles include diarrhea and stomatitis, which are associated with malnutrition in developing countries, and subclinical hepatitis, thrombocytopenia, appendicitis, ileocolitis, hypokalemia, and myocarditis.

During pregnancy, measles infection can be complicated by primary measles pneumonia and is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage and premature birth.13

Patients with a cell-mediated immunodeficiency who develop measles are particularly susceptible to fatal measles pneumonia and acute progressive encephalitis.14


From 1963 to 1967, a killed measles vaccine was available in the United States. Those who received this vaccine are susceptible to an atypical form of measles when exposed to the virus,15 characterized by a 1- to 2-day prodrome, followed by the appearance of a maculopapular or petechial rash on the distal extremities that spreads centripetally. Patients develop high fever and edema of the hands and feet, and have a more prolonged course than with classic measles. It is believed not to be contagious.16


Laboratory confirmation of measles is recommended for suspected cases. Because viral isolation is technically difficult and is not readily available in most laboratories, measles-specific immunoglobulin M antibody serologic testing is most commonly used. It is almost 100% sensitive when done 2 to 3 days after the onset of the rash.17

Measles RNA testing by real-time polymerase chain reaction to detect measles virus in the blood, throat, or urine is more specific and if available may be preferred over serologic testing.18


No specific antiviral therapy for measles is available. Management involves supportive measures and monitoring for secondary bacterial complications.

The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend vitamin A supplementation for all children with acute measles.19 In developing countries, it has been shown to reduce rates of morbidity and death in measles-infected children.20 In the United States, children with measles have been found to have low serum levels of vitamin A, with lower levels associated with more severe disease.

Next Article:

Zika—a new continent and new complications?

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