Measles outbreaks are happening across the country, with reports of new ones surfacing every day. As of this week, there have been more than 800 cases reported in 23 U.S. states — more than any year since 1994. The news is concerning for everyone, but it’s especially scary if you have a baby who is too young to be vaccinated against the disease.
The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine protects against measles, but current guidelines recommend that babies don’t receive the vaccine until they’re 12 months old, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, some doctors may recommended that babies who will be traveling internationally be given the MMR vaccine a little earlier, after they’re 6 months old.
Since you can’t put your baby in a bubble until then, you may end up in a situation where you unknowingly took your child to an area where they were exposed to measles. This is a huge fear many parents have right now, if social media is any indication. That raises a major question: What are you supposed to do if you think your child may have been exposed?
What is measles, exactly?
First, it’s important to address what measles is and why it’s so concerning for babies. Measles is a highly contagious disease that’s spread by coughing, sneezing or breathing, much like the common cold. (What to Expect When You’re Expecting author Heidi Murkoff’s 3-week-old grandson was exposed to the disease while in the hospital, after an adult patient with the infection was admitted down the hall.) The illness usually begins with symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, sore throat and fever, and then causes a rash to appear all over a patient’s body.
People can suffer complications of measles, and young children are especially vulnerable, says Gina Posner, M.D., a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Those complications include ear infections that can cause permanent hearing loss, diarrhea, pneumonia and swelling of the brain. The latter, which is known as encephalitis, can leave a child deaf or with an intellectual disability, the CDC says. Children can even die from measles, Dr. Posner says.
What should I do if I think my baby has been exposed?
If you think your baby may have come in contact with someone who has measles, call your child’s pediatrician ASAP, says Charles Shubin, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. The next steps they suggest “will depend on the situation,” he says. That might mean immunizing your child, which can help if it’s done within 72 hours of exposure, or drawing blood to test them for measles. If your child is found to have measles, they’ll likely recommend that she be isolated.
Your baby’s pediatrician may also refer you to the local health department, Dr. Posner says. The health department may recommend that your child undergo a treatment known as IV immunoglobulin, which can reduce the risk of infection and lower the odds that your baby will have complications, she says.
How can I protect my baby from measles?
For starters, Dr. Shubin recommends being mindful of who interacts with your baby. “Keep them away from anyone who has not been vaccinated, and has travelled or lived in an area with measles,” he says.
It’s also best to try to keep baby away from crowded indoor spaces like movie theaters and malls, Dr. Posner says. “Definitely avoid those,” she adds.
If you live in an area where a measles outbreak is happening, talk to your child’s pediatrician about your options. “A lot of my patients’ parents are requesting the MMR vaccine early because they’re terrified,” Dr. Posner says. “I’m not refusing it. It’s pretty scary right now.”