Schieffelin says a common misconception is that measles is not a serious disease because almost everyone has been infected before. But that is not the case.
Common symptoms—such as fever, cough, and runny nose—can make a patient feel “miserable,” said Stinchfield, who helped care for hospitalized children during a major measles outbreak in Minnesota in the 1990s.
Three to five days after the onset of the disease, a rash appears on the top of the head and spreads down the entire body. During this time, the fever can rise to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the CDC.
However, often the disease becomes serious. About one in five unvaccinated people in the United States who get measles end up in the hospital, according to the CDC. Complications range from dehydration and pneumonia to encephalitis, or swelling of the brain.
Measles can also affect your immunity to other diseases, Stinchfield said, a phenomenon known as immune amnesia.
Young children are at higher risk for these complications, as are the elderly, Schieffelin said. “As we get older, we don’t tolerate viruses like we used to,” he explained.
An estimated 136,200 people worldwide, mostly children, will die from measles in 2022, according to a report from the CDC and the World Health Organization.
Unvaccinated travelers can spread measles
Most people in the United States are protected against measles thanks to the vaccine, but the virus has not been eradicated worldwide. In fact, the overall vaccination rate with the same dose of MMR vaccine is around 74%, according to the CDC. Some countries have rates as low as 66%.
The CDC says there are measles outbreaks in all regions of the world. If an unvaccinated traveler becomes infected in another country, they can bring the virus into the United States and transmit it to other unvaccinated people, Stinchfield explained. In a community with low vaccination rates, the disease spreads easily, he added.
“(Measles) is still there,” Schieffelin said. “And if you don’t get vaccinated, you risk getting sick and your family members getting sick.”