Measles is a highly contagious airborne disease that used to be very common in childhood before vaccination was introduced. Measles epidemics occurred in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, and a number of deaths occurred in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children in Central Australia.
Measles can be caught just by being in the same room as an infected person. The measles virus is spread when people breathe in tiny droplets sprayed into the air through an infected person coughing or sneezing.
Measles is very contagious. It is important to keep vaccination levels high to protect everyone.
Signs and symptoms
Typical symptoms of measles are:
- sore throat
- runny nose
- conjunctivitis (inflamed, red eyes).
These symptoms are generally followed by a red, blotchy skin rash all over the body.
Complications of measles include otitis media (middle ear infection), diarrhoea, pneumonia and encephalitis (brain inflammation), which can result in brain damage and sometimes death.
Vaccination recommendations and coverage
Two doses of the vaccine containing measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) are funded under the National Immunisation Program for children at 12 and 18 months of age. The 18-month dose also includes varicella (MMRV). It is recommended that everyone born from 1966 onwards should have had two doses of measles-containing vaccine.
Measles vaccination coverage is high among Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait islander children; however, given the significant public health risk involved, it is important that vaccination coverage rates are maintained and that children are vaccinated on time.
Who is most affected?
Anyone can get measles. It is most common in:
- younger adults, who are more likely to not have received 2 doses of MMR vaccine (older adults mostly caught measles when they were children)
- babies who are too young to be vaccinated.
Complications from measles are more common and more severe in people who are chronically ill, children under 5 years of age and adults.
How common is it?
Between 2016 and 2019, there were 568 notifications of measles in Australia, with 12 (2.1%) of these reported in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. The notification rate was significantly lower among Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people compared with other people.
Between 2016 and 2019, there were 223 hospitalisations for measles, with 5 (2.2%) of these reported in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. There were no significant differences between hospitalisation rates in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and other people in any age group.
During the 2016–2019 period, there were very few (1–5) deaths with measles reported as an associated cause of death; none of these were in Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people. There were no deaths where measles was recorded as the underlying cause of death.