What to Do If Your Child Is Exposed to Measles

Although the endemic spread of measles was eliminated way back in 2000, we still have measles outbreaks in the United States.

How does that work?

They are usually imported from outside the country, often by an unvaccinated child or adult who travels overseas, gets measles, and returns while still contagious.

How Contagious is Measles?

Measles is highly contagious.

“Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”

CDC on Transmission of Measles

In addition to the fact that people with measles are contagious for at least four days before they develop the classic measles rash until four days after, the measles virus can survive for up to two hours in the air and on contaminated surfaces wherever that person cough or sneezed. So you don’t technically need to even be in direct contact with the person with measles – simply entering a room or getting on a bus that the infected person recently left can do it.

An infant hospitalized during a measles outbreak in the Philippines in which 110 people died.
An infant hospitalized during a measles outbreak in the Philippines in which 110 people died. Photo by Jim Goodson, M.P.H.

Still, you are not going to get measles from simply being in the same city as someone else with measles.

The tricky part though, is knowing what to do if your child is exposed to someone with measles, even if you think they are up-to-date with their vaccines.

Remember, kids get their first dose of MMR when they are 12 to 15 months old. While the second dose of MMR isn’t typically given until just before kids start kindergarten, when they are 4 to 6 years old, it can be given earlier. In fact, it can be given anytime after your child’s first birthday, as long as 28 days have passed since their first dose.

“Evidence of adequate vaccination for school-aged children, college students, and students in other postsecondary educational institutions who are at risk for exposure and infection during measles and mumps outbreaks consists of 2 doses of measles- or mumps-containing vaccine separated by at least 28 days, respectively. If the outbreak affects preschool-aged children or adults with community-wide transmission, a second dose should be considered for children aged 1 through 4 years or adults who have received 1 dose. In addition, during measles outbreaks involving infants aged <12 months with ongoing risk for exposure, infants aged ≥6 months can be vaccinated.”

CDC on Prevention of Measles, Rubella, Congenital Rubella Syndrome, and Mumps, 2013: Summary Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices

And although it won’t count as their first dose, in special situations, kids can get an early MMR once they are six months old.

What to Do If Your Unvaccinated Child Is Exposed to Measles

To be considered fully vaccinated and protected against measles, kids need two doses of MMR – one at 12 to 15 months and another when they are 4 to 6 years.

“During measles, rubella, or mumps outbreaks, efforts should be made to ensure that all persons at risk for exposure and infection are vaccinated or have other acceptable evidence of immunity.”

CDC on Prevention of Measles, Rubella, Congenital Rubella Syndrome, and Mumps, 2013: Summary Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices

If your unvaccinated child is exposed to measles, you should talk to your pediatrician or local health department about starting post-exposure prophylaxis as soon as possible, including:

  • a dose of immune globulin (IGIM) if they are less than 6 months old
  • either a dose of immune globulin (IGIM) or the MMR vaccine if they are between 6 and 12 months old (this dose of MMR doesn’t count as the first dose of MMR on the immunization schedule and will need to be repeated when the child turns 12 months old)
  • a dose of the MMR vaccine if they are at least 12 months old
  • a dose of immune globulin (IGIV) if they are severely immunocompromised (even if they were previously vaccinated)

Immune globulin should be given within 6 days of exposure, while a dose of MMR vaccine within 72 hours of exposure can decrease their chances of getting measles.

“Persons who continue to be exempted from or who refuse measles vaccination should be excluded from the school, child care, or other institutions until 21 days after rash onset in the last case of measles.”

Manual for the Surveillance of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Be sure to alert your pediatrician if you think your child might have measles or another vaccine-preventable disease.
Be sure to alert your pediatrician if you think your child might have measles or another vaccine-preventable disease.

What if your child is incompletely vaccinated, with just one dose of MMR? They could get their second dose of MMR, as long as they are over 12 months old and it has been at least 28 days since their first dose (see below).

Unvaccinated kids who don’t get post-exposure prophylaxis should be quarantined, as you watch for signs and symptoms of measles developing over the next 21 days. Your child might still need to be quarantined if they got immune globulin instead of the vaccine, and the quarantine might extend to 28 days, as immune globulin can prolong the incubation period.

If your exposed child develops measles, be sure to call your health care provider before going in for a visit, so that they can be prepared to see you and so you don’t expose other people to measles. Your child with suspected measles should be wearing a mask before going out in public and if possible, will be put in a negative pressure room in the emergency room or doctor’s office. If a regular exam room is used, it can not be used again for at least two hours. It is very important to understand that simply wearing a mask doesn’t eliminate the risk that your child with measles could expose others, it just reduces the risk. You still want to avoid other people!

What to Do If Your Vaccinated Child Is Exposed to Measles

If your fully vaccinated child is exposed to measles, does that mean you are in the clear?

Again, it depends on what you mean by fully vaccinated.

Is your child fully vaccinated for his age or has he had two doses of MMR?

Since kids get their first dose of MMR at 12 to 15 months and the second when they are 4 to 6 years old, it is easy to see that many infants, toddlers and preschoolers who are following the immunization schedule are not going to be fully vaccinated against measles, even if they are not skipping or delaying any vaccines.

“In the case of a local outbreak, you also might consider vaccinating children age 12 months and older at the minimum age (12 months, instead of 12 through 15 months) and giving the second dose 4 weeks later (at the minimum interval) instead of waiting until age 4 through 6 years.”

Ask the Experts about MMR

In some cases, documentation of age-appropriate vaccination with at least one dose of MMR is good enough protection, which means that toddlers and preschoolers don’t necessarily need an early second dose. That’s because the focus in controlling an outbreak is often on those folks who don’t have any evidence of immunity – the unvaccinated.

And one dose of MMR is about 95% effective at preventing measles infections. A second dose does increase the vaccine’s effectiveness against measles to over 99%, but it isn’t a booster. The second dose of MMR is for those kids that didn’t respond to the first dose.

“Available data suggest that measles vaccine, if given within 72 hours of measles exposure to susceptible individuals, will provide protection or disease modification in some cases. Measles vaccine should be considered in all exposed individuals who are vaccine-eligible and who have not been vaccinated or have received only 1 dose of vaccine.”

AAP RedBook

An early second dose is a good idea though if your child is exposed to measles, has only had one dose of MMR, and is age-eligible for the second dose (over age 12 months and at least 28 days since the first dose). Your child would eventually get this second dose anyway. Unlike the early dose before 12 months, this early dose will count as the second dose of MMR on the immunization schedule.

You should still watch for signs and symptoms of measles over the next 10 to 21 days though, as no vaccine is 100% effective. Your vaccinated child won’t need to be quarantined though.

Most importantly, in addition to understanding that vaccines are safe and necessary, know that the ultimate guidance and rules for what happens when a child is exposed to measles will depend on your local or state health department.

What to Know About Getting Exposed to Measles

Talk to your pediatrician if your child gets exposed to measles to make sure he doesn’t need post-exposure prophylaxis to keep him from getting sick, even if you think he is up-to-date on his vaccines.

More on Getting Exposed to Measles

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