28 Nov 13 13 Nov 17


Measles is a highly contagious viral disease and one of the leading causes of death among young children.

MSF treated 129,900 patients for measles and vaccinated 2,497,250 people in response to outbreaks in 2013.

While global measles deaths have decreased by 71 per cent worldwide in recent years — from 542,000 in 2000 to 158,000 in 2011 (according to the World Health Organization) — measles is still common in many developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia. A safe and effective vaccine has existed since the 1960s but outbreaks still occur due to ineffective or insufficient immunization programs.

Severe measles is more likely in malnourished children under five. Those with insufficient vitamin A, or whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV/AIDS or other diseases are especially likely to contract the virus.

What causes measles?

Measles is a highly contagious virus. It is so contagious that 90 per cent of people without immunity who share living spaces with an infected person will catch it. Measles is transmitted via droplets from the nose, mouth or throat of infected people, which are dispersed by coughing, sneezing and breathing.

Symptoms of measles

Symptoms appear between 10 and 14 days after exposure to the virus and include a runny nose, cough, eye infection, rash and high fever. There is no specific treatment for measles — patients are isolated and treated for a lack of vitamin A, eye-related complications, stomatitis (mouth ulcers), dehydration through diarrhea, protein deficiencies and respiratory tract infections.

Diagnosing measles

Clinical diagnosis of measles requires a history of fever of at least three days, with at least one of the three ‘C’s (cough, catarrh, conjunctivitis) present. Clusters of tiny white spots on the inside of the mouth, known as Koplik spots, are also a sign of measles. These usually occur two days before the outbreak of the measles rash itself.

Treating measles

Most people recover within two to three weeks, but between five and 20 per cent of people infected with measles die, usually because of severe complications such as diarrhea, dehydration, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or respiratory infections.

A safe and cost-effective vaccine against measles exists. Large-scale vaccination campaigns have drastically decreased the number of cases, and the number of deaths from measles. However, coverage remains low in countries with weak health systems, and among people with limited access to health services. Large outbreaks still occur.

Vaccination is the best form of protection against measles. Even after the disease has begun to spread, vaccination can still reduce the number of cases and deaths. The difficulty lies in the fact that at least 95 per cent of people need to be immune to prevent new outbreaks.

In 2012, MSF treated 26,200 people for measles and vaccinated 690,700 people in response to outbreaks.