If you've already had measles, your body has built up its immune system to fight the infection, and you can't get measles again. Most people born or living in the United States before 1957 are immune to measles, simply because they've already had it.
For everyone else, there's the measles vaccine.
Vaccine saves lives
Before the vaccine became available in the mid-1960s, measles killed between 400 and 500 people in the United States each year. As vaccination programs have spread into developing countries, the global death rates from measles have fallen dramatically.
According to the World Health Organization, about 576 million children were vaccinated against measles between 2000 and 2007. This resulted in a 74 percent decrease in measles deaths worldwide.
Prior to the measles vaccine, more than 3 million people in the United States caught measles every year. In 2000, health officials declared that measles had been eliminated from the United States.
That was good news for people who have medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated against measles. Their chances of exposure to the measles virus plummeted because so few people in the community, or "herd," get measles now.
But that protection may be weakening a bit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of people contracting measles in the United States appears to be rising. Between 2000 and 2007, the average number of measles cases per year was 63. That rate more than doubled in 2008.
In the United States, the measles vaccine is most commonly given in a combination inoculation, the MMR vaccine, which also includes protection from mumps and rubella.
In recent years, some news reports have raised concerns about a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. However, extensive reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conclude that there's no scientifically proven link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
These organizations note that autism is often identified in toddlers between the ages of 18 months and 30 months, which happens to be about the time children are given their first MMR vaccine. But this coincidence in timing shouldn't be mistaken for a cause-and-effect relationship.
When should children be vaccinated?
Doctors recommend that children receive the MMR vaccine between 12 and 15 months of age, and again between 4 and 6 years of age — before entering school.
Usually babies are protected from measles for about six months after birth because of the immunity passed on from their mothers. However, unvaccinated mothers who have not had measles will have no immunity to pass on to their babies.
If a child requires protection from measles before 12 months of age — for example, for certain foreign travel or in case of an outbreak — the vaccine can be given as early as 6 months of age. But it needs to be repeated after 12 months of age.
Do adults need the MMR vaccine?
You don't need to be vaccinated if you:
• Were born before 1957
• Had two doses of the MMR vaccine after 12 months of age or one dose of the MMR vaccine plus a second dose of measles vaccine
• Have blood tests that prove you're immune to measles, mumps and rubella
You should be vaccinated if you don't fit the criteria listed above and you:
• Are a nonpregnant woman of childbearing age
• Attend college, trade school or postsecondary school
• Work in a hospital, medical facility, child care center or school
• Plan to travel overseas or take a cruise
The vaccine is not recommended for:
• Pregnant women or women who plan to get pregnant within the next four weeks
• People who have had a life-threatening allergic reaction to gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin
If you have cancer, a blood disorder or another disease that affects your immune system, talk to your doctor before getting an MMR vaccine.