In 2018, our teams vaccinated nearly 1.5 million people against measles. But the highly contagious viral disease remains one of the leading killers of young children.

Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children.

It is a highly contagious viral disease. A safe and effective vaccine has existed since the 1960s but outbreaks still occur due to ineffective or insufficient immunisation programmes.

While global measles deaths have decreased by 73 percent worldwide in recent years – from 536,000 in 2000 to 142,000 in 2018 (according to the World Health Organisation) – measles is still common in many developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia.

Severe measles is more likely among malnourished children under five. Those with insufficient vitamin A, or whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV/AIDS or other diseases, are especially likely to contract the virus.

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What causes measles? 

Measles is caused by the highly contagious measles virus. It is so contagious that 90 percent of people without immunity who share living spaces with an infected person will catch it. Measles is transmitted via droplets from the nose, mouth or throat of infected people, by coughing, sneezing and breathing. 

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Symptoms of measles

Symptoms appear between 10 and 14 days after exposure to the virus and include a runny nose, cough, eye infection, rash and high fever.

Diagnosing measles

Clinical diagnosis of measles requires a history of fever of at least three days, with at least one of the three ‘Cs' (cough, catarrh, conjunctivitis) present.

Clusters of tiny white spots on the inside of the mouth, known as Koplik spots, are also a sign of measles. These usually occur two days before the outbreak of the measles rash itself.

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Treating measles

There is no specific treatment for measles – patients are isolated and treated for a lack of vitamin A, eye-related complications, stomatitis (mouth ulcers) dehydration through diarrhoea, protein deficiencies and respiratory tract infections.

In high-income countries, most people infected with measles recover within two to three weeks and mortality rates are low. In developing countries, however, the mortality rate can be up to 10 percent, rising to 20 percent in outbreaks with limited access to care. 

Death is mostly due to severe respiratory infections, such as pneumonia; diarrhoea and stomatitis that can lead to malnutrition; and, more rarely, neurological complications such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). 

Preventing measles

A safe and cost-effective vaccine against measles exists, and large-scale vaccination campaigns have significantly decreased the number of cases and deaths.

The difficulty lies in the fact that at least 93 to 95 percent of people need to be immune to prevent new outbreaks.

Coverage remains low in countries with weak health structures, or among people with limited access to health services and large outbreaks still occur.

In 2018, MSF vaccinated 1,479,800 people against measles in response to outbreaks.

This page was last updated on 08 January 2020

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