Measles is a highly contagious disease that can be life threatening. Find out what the symptoms are and how immunisation can protect you and your family.

(The following information is sourced directly from the Ministry of Health NZ)

  • Measles is highly contagious – and easily preventable.
  • It affects both children and adults.
  • 2 doses of the measles vaccine provides the most effective protection for yourself, your family and the wider community. After 2 doses of the MMR vaccine, more than 95% of people are protected from measles.
  • In New Zealand, if you were born in 1969 or later, you can get the measles vaccine for free.
  • Vaccination is particularly important if you are planning to travel anywhere overseas – to protect yourself and to help prevent outbreaks in New Zealand.

How measles spreads

Measles is a highly infectious virus that spreads easily from person to person through the air, via breathing, coughing and sneezing. It affects both children and adults.

If you catch measles you are infectious 5 days before and until 5 days after the rash appears.

Anyone with measles needs to be isolated from the time they become ill until 5 days after the rash has appeared. Isolation means staying at home and missing out on things like school, work, sporting competitions and social events. 

It is extremely important to stay in isolation if you’re asked to do so, to protect vulnerable people including babies, pregnant women, cancer patients and others who are unable to be immunised.

If you are exposed to measles and can’t prove that you’re immune (for example, by showing your immunisation record), you’ll need to be isolated for at least 14 days.

Schools and child care centres have the legal power to exclude unvaccinated children when there is a risk of measles being spread.

Measles complications

Measles can be life threatening: about 1 in 10 people with measles will need hospital treatment.

Measles can also lead to other complications, including:

  • ear infections (which can cause permanent hearing loss)
  • diarrhoea
  • pneumonia
  • seizures
  • swelling of the brain – this is rare, but can cause permanent brain damage or death.

Up to 30% of people with measles will develop complications – usually children under 5 and adults over the age of 20.

Measles during pregnancy increases the risk of miscarriage, premature labour and low birth-weight babies.

The illness starts 7–18 days after you’ve been exposed. If you have measles, you’ll get the following symptoms.

First symptoms

  • A fever
  • A cough
  • A runny nose
  • Sore and watery ‘pink’ eyes
  • Sometimes small white spots on the back inner cheek of your mouth.

Day 3–7 of illness

A blotchy rash which tends to start on your face, behind the ears, before moving over your head and down your body. The rash lasts for up to a week.

Photo of a baby with the measles rash on its face.
Photo credit: Jim Goodson, M.P.H, used courtesy of the CDC/Molly Kurnit, M.P.H.

What to do if you or a family member has symptoms

If you detect any of these symptoms, see your family NP (or GP) or call Healthline on 0800 611 116, for advice as soon as possible.

It’s important to call before visiting your NP (or GP) because measles is easily passed on from one person to another. Phoning ahead helps ensure steps are taken to avoid you spreading measles in the waiting room.

You should also stay away from work, school or public places, to help prevent putting other people at risk. This also applies if you or a family member aren’t fully immunised and may have been in contact with someone with measles.

The best protection against measles is the free measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. You need 2 doses of measles-containing vaccine to be fully immunised.

New Zealanders born from 1 January 1969 are eligible for free MMR vaccinations. If you were born before the measles vaccine became available in 1969, you are considered at lower risk because you were probably exposed to measles as a child.

People aged 10 to 29 years are at greatest risk of catching measles, as they're the group least likely to have been fully immunised as children.

If you’re unsure of your vaccination status you can check your Well Child Tamariki Ora or Plunket book, or contact your NP (or GP) practice.

If you can’t find your records, the Ministry of Health recommends you get vaccinated anyway – it’s free, and there is no harm in having an extra dose of the vaccine. 

Vaccination is particularly important if you are planning to travel anywhere overseas – to protect yourself and to help prevent outbreaks in New Zealand.

Get up to date with your immunisations

It’s never too late to get up to date with your immunisations. By being immunised, you will not only be protecting yourself and your family – you’ll also stop the disease spreading in your community.

  • Young children are usually vaccinated at 15 months and 4 years of age.
  • 2 doses are necessary to give the best protection.
  • In an outbreak or other urgent situation, the first scheduled dose can be given from 12 months of age, with the second scheduled dose able to be given as early as 1 month after the first.
  • In an outbreak, an additional dose of measles vaccine can be given from 6 months of age. Babies immunised before they are 12 months old will still need 2 doses according to the schedule (at 15 months and 4 years).
  • Immunisation (with 2 measles vaccinations) is also very important for older children and adults.

For more information about the vaccine, read the HealthEd resource Childhood Immunisation. Download information from there.

Who shouldn’t have the vaccine?

You shouldn’t get immunised against measles if you:

  • are pregnant
  • have a severe allergy or immunosuppressive condition.

If you think you have been exposed to measles and are unable to have the vaccine, ask your doctor for advice.

While measles can be a dangerous illness with long-term side effects for any child, it has a more than 50% death rate for New Zealand children with low immunity.

As well as causing death, measles can cause pneumonia, deafness and brain damage.

In this country, the biggest group of children with low immunity are those receiving cancer treatment. Chemotherapy attacks bone marrow and reduces the effectiveness of the immune system, making people much more susceptible to infection, particularly from viruses such as chickenpox and measles. While there is now treatment available for chickenpox, there is no effective treatment for measles.

These children cannot be immunised

Because the measles vaccine contains a live virus, vulnerable children cannot be immunised but everyone around them needs to be.

Previous immunisations or exposure to illnesses will only partially protect children who have had chemotherapy because the damage done to their immune system erases much or all of the body’s memory that it has seen the virus before.

A child’s immunity continues to drop as they receive more chemotherapy. For patients with leukaemia – the most common type of childhood cancer – their immunity continues to decline over the 2–3 years’ worth of treatment. It also remains severely impaired until at least 6 months after treatment has ended.

When children have finished receiving their cancer treatment they are re-immunised, with the measles vaccine the first to be given during a measles outbreak.

What can we do to protect them?

The most important thing we can do to protect children with low immunity is to make sure that we and our children are immunised against measles, so that we cannot spread the illness.

It is especially important that extended family members of a vulnerable child, their friends and anyone who comes into contact with them are immunised against measles or they should keep away from them. If they have not been immunised, this should be done as soon as possible.

People can worry that they will give a vulnerable child measles from being vaccinated with the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine because it is a live virus vaccine, but this is not a risk.

What do vulnerable children need to do to protect themselves?

If there are measles cases at the child’s school, they need to stay away from school until the risk of getting measles has passed. Information about when it is safe to return to school is given by the local Medical Officer of Health.

Children with low immunity also need to stay away from crowds of people, particularly during a measles outbreak. This means keeping away from places such as shopping malls, movie theatres and big events or going at off-peak times.

Regularly using hand sanitiser is important for affected children and those caring for them. Special precautions also need to be taken in hospitals during a measles outbreak to keep measles patients away from others.

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