Measles: What Programs Serving Children and Families Should Know
For ACF-supported human services programs that serve children, youth, and families, news reports about the outbreak of measles cases in a number of states may be especially concerning. Staff may have questions about what they can do to help prevent the spread of measles, and how to provide accurate information to parents.
This fact sheet should be used to answer questions staff may have and to help support staff, children, and families.
What is Measles?
Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. Measles starts with a fever, followed by a cough, runny nose, and red eyes. A rash of tiny, red spots follows. It starts at the head and spreads to the remainder of the body. Measles can be serious for young children (especially younger than 5 years old). It can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), and death.
How is Measles Spread?
Measles spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is possible for a person to spread measles without knowing he or she is infected. The disease is so contagious that if one person has it and coughs, 90% of the people around him or her will become infected if they are not protected by immunization.
Why is there a Measles Outbreak in the U.S.?
Most people in this country are protected against measles by vaccination. Two combination vaccines that are used are the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) and MMRV (measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella) vaccinations.
Measles was eliminated in the United States in 2000. Each year, a few Americans have developed measles, when the disease is brought in by unvaccinated travelers who get measles while they are in other countries. Recently, however, there has been an increase in the number of measles cases. Experts attribute this increase to:
- more measles cases than usual in countries Americans often visit (such as England, France, Germany, India, Philippines, and Vietnam), and therefore more measles cases coming into the United States, and/or
- more spreading of measles in U.S. communities with pockets of unvaccinated people.
In 2014, there were 644 measles cases reported—the highest number since the disease was eliminated in the U.S. From the start of this year until February 6, there have been over 120 cases of measles, most of them connected to a large, ongoing outbreak linked to an amusement park in California.
What Can Parents do to Protect Kids from Measles?
Vaccination with the MMR or MMRV vaccine protects children against measles as well as other preventable childhood diseases.
Children should get two doses of the MMR vaccine—one at 12-15 months and another at 4-6 years.
Very young children are at greater risk of getting measles because they haven’t yet had the second dose of vaccine and aren’t fully immunized yet. A small number of children, such as some kids with weakened immune systems due to HIV infection or cancer treatment, may be advised by their doctors that they should not be vaccinated due to their special medical needs. Very young children and children with special medical needs are usually protected because other children and adults around them are vaccinated.
When parents vaccinate their children, they are protecting not just their own children, but all the other children in their community who are too young or medically unable to get fully immunized.
What Can Human Services Programs Do To Protect Children from Measles?
- Know and follow your agency’s policies on immunization. Depending on your agency’s program, there may be laws or policies requiring staff to provide documentation that they are fully immunized. Some programs may have policies requiring children receiving services to provide documentation that vaccinations are up-to-date.
- Help get the word out that vaccination is safe and effective. Many community human services programs that serve children and families are trusted messengers. Program staff support parents’ efforts to promote children’s healthy development and well-being every day. That relationship of trust provides an opportunity to help parents get accurate, credible information about vaccination.
What Message About Measles Should Programs Share With Parents?
These are some important messages to share with parents:
- The measles vaccine has been proven very safe and effective.
- Making sure children get the measles vaccine and other recommended vaccinations is one of the most important things parents can do to keep their children healthy. The best protection comes from getting two doses of vaccine—one dose at 12-15 months and another dose at 4-6 years.
- Parents with questions about immunizations should speak with their child’s pediatrician. Encourage parents who may be hesitant about vaccination to get reliable information from the doctor their family trusts.
How Can Low-Income Families Be Helped with the Cost of Vaccines?
If your program works with low-income families, you can help provide them with information to make sure no parents delay getting their children vaccinated because of fears about cost. The MMR vaccine and other immunizations are affordable and accessible.
All Health Insurance Marketplace plans and most private insurance cover vaccinations without charging a copay. Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Medicare (Part B, Part D, and Advantage Plan Part C) can also pay for vaccination. If families don’t have insurance or their insurance doesn’t cover a child’s vaccine, the Vaccines for Children Program may be able to help. To find out if a child is eligible, parents can visit the VFC Website or ask their doctor. Working parents have many options that can work with their schedules to get their children immunized—in their pediatrician or family doctor’s office, in state health department offices, federally funded health centers, and in many neighborhood pharmacies.
Talking with Children About Measles
Because measles is in the news, children may have questions or fears. Young children, in particular, can become very worried about disease outbreaks, even if there are no cases near where they live. These steps may help program staff and parents to reassure children:
- Limit children’s exposure to media reports on the disease.
- If children have questions, make time to listen to their concerns and answer their questions.
- Be honest. Answer questions based on the facts.
- Speak in a calm tone of voice. Use reassuring words. Reinforce that parents, health care professionals, and other adults in the child’s life work together to keep children healthy.
- Keep all explanations age-appropriate.
- Let children know that the shots they get at their doctor’s office protect them from diseases.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has additional Tips for Caregivers, Parents, and Teachers on talking with children about infectious disease outbreaks.
Staff and Parents Worried About Measles
Program staff as well as parents may also experience stress or worry about measles or other communicable diseases. Sharing the facts, especially the fact that the MMR or MMRV vaccine is very effective at protecting against measles, can help with that stress. Tips on Coping with Stress during Infectious Disease Outbreaks are also available online.
Where Can I Learn More?
For more information on measles, consult your state or local public health agency or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Measles page.