Skip links and keyboard navigation

What is measles and why do we vaccinate against it?

Tuesday 11 September 2018

A baby is held up, it's back covered in a red rash.
Measles can cause serious illness and death in children, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.

Measles may seem like ‘no big deal’ aside from causing a bit of pain and bother, but it can be more damaging than that. This virus can actually cause serious illness and even death to children, the elderly and those with chronic illness.  

What is measles?

Measles is a very contagious disease that is caused by a virus. When first infected people experience what feels like a really bad flu with a high fever, tiredness, cough, runny nose and/or red eyes. These symptoms usually become more severe with time and white spots may develop in the mouth. This is then followed by a blotchy dark red rash, often beginning around the hairline, which will then quickly spread to the rest of the body. At this point, people usually feel the most unwell.  

Measles is contagious for about four days before and four days after the development of the rash. The rash usually disappears within six days.

Why do we vaccinate against measles?

Importantly, our chances of measles infection can, in most cases, be eliminated by simply getting the measles vaccine. Widespread vaccination means those members of the public with significant health problems, who can’t receive vaccinations, have a much-reduced risk of getting measles.

A baby lies on a bed while a doctor prepares to give him a needle.

How does vaccination work?

The measles vaccine contains a weakened version of the measles virus. After vaccination, the immune system makes the antibodies and memory cells needed to provide long-term protection against measles infection. Then, if the body comes into contact with the real virus, the immune system is better prepared to respond. This either stops the disease from developing or reduces the severity of the disease and the risk of serious complications.

The best way to prevent measles infection is vaccination. The measles vaccine prevents almost all cases of severe disease. The vaccine is very safe; adverse events following measles vaccine are generally mild and may include local swelling, redness or pain at the injection site or fever. Some people (about 1 in 20) may develop a rash, which is not infectious. Serious adverse events are very rare.  

In some instances, people aren’t able to be vaccinated. They might have a suppressed immune system, which means vaccination could cause dangerous side effects. Some people can be allergic to the ingredients in vaccines. If you have concerns about your children being allergic to vaccines, you should talk to your GP and they can advise you how to best proceed.

People who are unable to receive vaccines rely on the rest of the community to be vaccinated, so that the virus is less likely to spread to them.

What should I do if I'm not vaccinated or my children aren't vaccinated?

Talk to your GP or immunisation provider as soon as possible about how to proceed with vaccinations. You don’t need to receive the vaccine if you’ve already had measles, but it won’t harm you if you do get the vaccine.

Immunisation against measles is recommended as part of the National Immunisation Program Schedule and the vaccine is available free of cost for:

  • all children aged 12 months and 18 months
  • children at 4 years of age who have not previously received a second dose of measles, mumps, rubella (MMR)

Anyone born during or since 1966 who has not received two doses of MMR vaccine or had the disease are also eligible for funded vaccine. Vaccination is also recommended for healthcare workers and people who work with children.

Protection against measles is given through a combined MMR vaccine. Two doses are needed to provide a high level of protection.

Women planning a pregnancy should discuss whether they should be immunised against measles with their doctor. If so, they should be vaccinated with MMR vaccine at least 28 days before becoming pregnant or immediately after delivery.

Further information

Health Direct – Measles

Queensland Health Fact Sheet - Measles

Last updated: 12 September 2018