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Measles (rubeola)

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C. A. V. Nogueira, M.D. |
MeaslesMeasles, also called rubeola, is a childhood respiratory disease caused by a virus. The disease is often confused with roseola (roseola infantum) and rubella (German measles). In many countries measles is almost gone but it still kills nearly 200,000 people each year around the world.


Measles virus grows in the cells at the back of the throat and lungs. Measles causes fever, runny nose, cough and a rash all over the body. Signs and symptoms of measles are cough, runny nose, inflamed eyes, sore throat, fever and a red, blotchy skin rash.

MeaslesAbout 10 percent of children with measles also get an ear infection, and up to five percent gets pneumonia. About one child out of 1,000 gets encephalitis, and unfortunately one or two out of 1,000 die. The good thing here is that measles is a disease that can be prevented with a vaccine and in many countries measles is almost gone. The bad thing is that the disease still kills nearly 200,000 people each year around the world.

Measles spreads through the air by breathing, coughing or sneezing. Measles is so contagious that if one person has it 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected with the measles virus. The symptoms of measles begin 7-14 days after a person is infected and they include blotchy rash, fever, cough, runny nose, red eyes (conjunctivitis), achy, and small white spots with bluish-white centres found inside the mouth.

The disease begins with mild fever, cough, runny nose, red eyes, and sore throat. Two or three days after that tiny white spots may appear in the mouth. Three to five days after the start of symptoms, a red or reddish-brown rash appears. The rash usually begins on the face at the hairline and spreads to the neck, trunk, arms, legs, and feet. When the rash appears, a person’s fever may spike to more than 40 C. After a few days, the fever subsides and the rash fades.

The treatment is to stay in bed in a cool room without any bright lights. Although no treatment can get rid of an established measles infection, some measures can be taken to protect patients who have been exposed to the virus. Nonimmunized people, including infants, may be given the measles vaccination within 72 hours of exposure to the measles virus, to provide protection against the disease. If measles still develops, the illness usually has milder symptoms and lasts for a shorter time.

Pregnant women, infants and people with weakened immune systems who are exposed to the virus may receive an injection of proteins that can fight off infection, called immune serum globulin. When given within six days of exposure to the virus, these antibodies can prevent measles or make symptoms less severe.

You or your child may also take over-the-counter medications to help relieve the fever that accompanies measles. Don't give aspirin to children because of the risk of Reye's syndrome — a rare but potentially fatal disease. If a bacterial infection, such as pneumonia or an ear infection, develops while you or your child has measles, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.

All children in developing countries diagnosed with measles should receive two doses of vitamin A supplements, given 24 hours apart. This can help prevent eye damage and blindness. Vitamin A supplements have been shown to reduce the number of deaths from measles by 50 percent.

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