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As one of the most infectious viruses known to mankind, measles has been a scourge for centuries.

Symptoms and Causative Agent

Measles is an extremely contagious disease caused by a virus from the paramyxovirus family and spread by air. Its symptoms include fever and coughing as well as its infamous rash. Typically, fever occurs before the measles rash; however, with the appearance of the rash, the existing fever may rise to temperatures of 104°F or higher.

These symptoms usually begin one to two weeks after infection with the measles virus; most people recover within two to three weeks.

Measles is also called “rubeola,” but should not be confused with rubella, or the so-called German measles.



Measles is a highly contagious disease. The virus is found in the nose and throat of infected patients and is sprayed via coughs and sneezes into the air, where it can remain active and infectious for up two hours. As a result, a person can become infected simply by breathing the air in a room that had been occupied by a measles patient as much as two hours earlier.


Treatment and Care

There is no direct treatment for measles. Supportive care may be provided, including efforts to keep the patient hydrated and to lower the fever associated with the disease.



Measles can lead to complications ranging in severity from diarrhea to encephalitis (swelling of the brain), with adult patients typically being subject to more severe complications. Although the disease is rarely fatal in developed countries, mortality can be high in low-income nations. Case-fatality rates have been recorded as high as 28%, and tend to rise during wars or widespread food shortages. As recently as 2000, measles caused 1.1 million deaths globally among young children in a year’s time.


Available Vaccines and Vaccination Campaigns

A vaccine to protect against measles was developed in the 1960s and was quickly adopted. Widespread vaccination programs, including the Measles Initiative launched in 2001 by the American Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the World Health Organization, contributed to global decreases in measles cases until the case count among children fell as low as 118, 000 by 2008.

Since 2008, however, vaccination campaigns have suffered from funding cutbacks, allowing the highly contagious disease to roar back. Despite the cost of vaccinating a child against measles being less than $1 USD according to the World Health Organization, outbreaks have been reported in 30 African countries as well as Thailand, Bulgaria, Indonesia and Vietnam. Britain has also been experiencing a resurgence of the disease following the publication of a flawed 1998 paper suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Although the paper has since been withdrawn and its author’s license to practice medicine in Britain revoked, the country’s MMR vaccination levels have not yet returned to those achieved before the paper was published. Measles cases, in turn, have risen to more than 10 times the number reported a decade earlier.


U.S. Vaccination Recommendations

Vaccination against the measles is included on the U.S. childhood immunization schedule as part of the combined MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination. This vaccine is given in two doses, the first of which is recommended after 12 months of age. Alternatively, measles vaccination is available as part of the newer MMRV (measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella) combination vaccine, which also protects against chickenpox.



  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases. (600 KB). Atkinson, W., Wolfe, S., Hamborsky, J., McIntyre, L. eds. 13th ed. Washington DC: Public Health Foundation, 2015. Accessed 01/25/2018.
  • Perry, R.T., Halsey, N.A. . The Journal of Infectious Diseases 2004. 189:S1, S4-S16. Accessed 01/25/2018.


Last update 25 January 2018