Measles, a highly contagious viral disease, has been a significant public health concern for centuries. Despite the development of an effective vaccine, measles continues to pose a threat in many parts of the world. This article delves into the history, transmission, symptoms, treatment, and prevention of measles, as well as the challenges and successes in the fight against this preventable disease.


History of Measles

Measles, also known as rubeola, is one of the oldest known diseases, with records dating back to at least the 9th century. The Persian physician Rhazes (Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi) first described the disease in detail in the 10th century. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that measles was recognized as a distinct illness from smallpox and other febrile diseases.

The virus responsible for measles, a member of the Paramyxoviridae family, was identified in 1954 by John F. Enders and Thomas C. Peebles. This discovery was crucial in the development of the first effective measles vaccine, which was introduced in 1963. The widespread use of the vaccine led to a dramatic decline in measles cases and deaths, especially in developed countries.


Transmission and Epidemiology

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases known to humans. The virus is transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread by direct contact with nasal or throat secretions of infected individuals. The virus can remain infectious in the air or on surfaces for up to two hours.

The basic reproduction number (R0) for measles is estimated to be between 12 and 18, meaning that one infected person can potentially spread the virus to 12-18 susceptible individuals. This high R0 underscores the importance of high vaccination coverage to achieve herd immunity and prevent outbreaks.


Symptoms and Clinical Presentation

The incubation period for measles is typically 10-12 days from exposure to the onset of symptoms. The disease progresses through several stages:

  1. Prodromal Stage
  2. Exanthem Stage
  3. Recovery Stage


Prodromal Stage

This stage lasts 2-4 days and is characterized by high fever, cough, runny nose (coryza), and conjunctivitis (red, watery eyes). Koplik’s spots, small white lesions on the inner cheeks, may appear during this stage and are pathognomonic for measles.

Exanthem Stage

A maculopapular rash begins on the face and spreads downward to the trunk and limbs. The rash typically lasts for 5-6 days and fades in the same order it appeared. The fever often peaks with the appearance of the rash and gradually subsides thereafter.

Recovery Stage

The rash fades, and symptoms improve, but the person may still be contagious for several days after the rash onset. Complications can arise during this stage, especially in individuals with weakened immune systems or underlying health conditions.

measles symptoms and complications

Complications of Measles

While measles is often self-limiting, it can lead to severe complications, particularly in young children, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals. Common complications include:

  • Otitis Media
  • Pneumonia
  • Diarrhea
  • Encephalitis
  • Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE)


Otitis Media

Middle ear infection, which can lead to hearing loss.


A serious lung infection and the leading cause of death associated with measles.


Can lead to dehydration, especially in young children.


Inflammation of the brain, which can result in seizures, brain damage, or death.

Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE)

A rare, fatal, degenerative disease of the central nervous system that occurs years after measles infection.


Diagnosis and Treatment

Measles is typically diagnosed based on clinical presentation and history of exposure. Laboratory confirmation can be obtained through serological testing for measles-specific IgM antibodies or reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) for measles RNA.

There is no specific antiviral treatment for measles. Management focuses on supportive care to relieve symptoms and prevent complications. This includes:

  • Hydration
  • Antipyretics
  • Vitamin A



Ensuring adequate fluid intake to prevent dehydration.


Medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce fever and alleviate discomfort.

Vitamin A

Supplementation in children, as it has been shown to reduce the severity of symptoms and complications.

Hospitalization may be necessary for severe cases or complications, particularly in young children and immunocompromised individuals.


Prevention and Vaccination

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent measles. The measles vaccine, often administered as part of the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, is highly effective. Two doses of the MMR vaccine provide approximately 97% protection against measles.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that all children receive two doses of the MMR vaccine, with the first dose given at 9-12 months of age and the second dose at 15-18 months or at school entry. In countries with high measles transmission, the first dose may be given as early as 6 months, with subsequent doses according to the national immunization schedule.

High vaccination coverage is essential to achieve herd immunity and prevent outbreaks. Herd immunity for measles requires about 95% of the population to be immunized, which helps protect those who cannot be vaccinated, such as infants and individuals with certain medical conditions.


Global Measles Control and Elimination Efforts

Significant progress has been made in reducing measles cases and deaths worldwide. According to the WHO, global measles mortality decreased by 73% between 2000 and 2018, thanks to widespread vaccination efforts. However, challenges remain, particularly in low- and middle-income countries with weak health systems and low vaccination coverage.

The WHO and its partners have set ambitious goals for measles control and elimination. The Global Vaccine Action Plan aims to achieve measles elimination in at least five WHO regions by 2020. Despite setbacks, efforts continue to strengthen immunization programs, improve surveillance, and respond to outbreaks.


Challenges in Measles Elimination

Several challenges hinder the global elimination of measles:

  • Vaccine Hesitancy
  • Health System Barriers
  • Conflict and Displacement
  • Global Mobility


Vaccine Hesitancy

Misinformation and misconceptions about vaccine safety have led to vaccine hesitancy in some communities, resulting in lower vaccination rates and outbreaks of measles.

Health System Barriers

Inadequate healthcare infrastructure, lack of access to vaccines, and insufficient healthcare worker training can impede vaccination efforts.

Conflict and Displacement

Armed conflicts, political instability, and displacement of populations can disrupt vaccination programs and increase the risk of measles transmission.

Global Mobility

International travel can facilitate the spread of measles, as travelers from areas with high measles transmission can introduce the virus to regions where it had been eliminated.


Success Stories and Lessons Learned

Despite the challenges, there have been notable successes in measles control and elimination. For example, the Americas region achieved measles elimination in 2016, thanks to sustained high vaccination coverage and strong public health systems. Although imported cases have occurred, rapid response measures have prevented widespread transmission.

Countries like Bhutan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka have also achieved measles elimination, demonstrating that even resource-limited nations can succeed with strong political commitment, robust health systems, and community engagement.

Key lessons from these success stories include the importance of:

  • Political Commitment
  • Community Engagement
  • Strong Surveillance Systems
  • Integration with Other Health Services


Political Commitment

Strong leadership and sustained political commitment are crucial for the success of measles elimination programs.

Community Engagement

Involving communities in vaccination efforts helps build trust and address vaccine hesitancy.

Strong Surveillance Systems

Effective surveillance and rapid response to outbreaks are essential to detect and contain measles transmission.

Integration with Other Health Services

Integrating measles vaccination with other health services, such as routine immunizations and maternal and child health programs, can improve coverage and efficiency.


The Future of Measles Control and Elimination

Looking ahead, achieving global measles elimination will require renewed efforts and innovative strategies. Key priorities include:

  • Strengthening Health Systems
  • Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy
  • Enhancing Surveillance and Outbreak Response
  • Reaching Underserved Populations
  • Global Collaboration


Strengthening Health Systems

Investing in health infrastructure, training healthcare workers, and ensuring reliable vaccine supply chains are essential for improving vaccination coverage and response to outbreaks.

Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy

Combating misinformation and building public trust in vaccines through effective communication strategies, community engagement, and addressing the root causes of vaccine hesitancy.

Enhancing Surveillance and Outbreak Response

Strengthening surveillance systems to detect and respond to measles cases and outbreaks promptly, including the use of new technologies for real-time monitoring and data analysis.

Reaching Underserved Populations

Ensuring that vaccination efforts reach marginalized and underserved populations, including those in remote areas, conflict zones, and refugee camps.

Global Collaboration

Sustaining and enhancing international cooperation and partnerships to support measles control and elimination efforts, particularly in regions with high disease burden.


Oral Manifestations of Measles

One of the hallmark features of measles is its distinctive oral manifestations. These signs are not only important for diagnosing measles but also have implications for oral health:

  • Koplik’s Spots
  • Ulcerative Stomatitis
  • Secondary Oral Infections


Koplik’s Spots

Koplik’s spots are pathognomonic for measles and are considered an early diagnostic sign. These are small, bluish-white lesions with a red halo, typically appearing on the buccal mucosa opposite the lower molars. They precede the characteristic skin rash by 1-2 days and usually fade as the rash appears. While Koplik’s spots themselves are not harmful, their presence can indicate an active measles infection, prompting the need for isolation and careful management to prevent the spread of the virus.

Ulcerative Stomatitis

During a measles infection, patients may develop ulcerative stomatitis, characterized by painful ulcers in the mouth. These ulcers can make eating and drinking difficult, contributing to dehydration and nutritional deficiencies, particularly in young children.

Secondary Oral Infections

Measles weakens the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to secondary infections, including those in the oral cavity. Some of the secondary oral infections that can occur during or after measles include:

Oral Thrush (Candidiasis)

The immunosuppressive effects of measles can lead to an overgrowth of Candida species in the mouth, resulting in oral thrush. This fungal infection appears as creamy white lesions on the tongue, inner cheeks, and sometimes the roof of the mouth, gums, and tonsils. Oral thrush can cause discomfort, pain, and difficulty swallowing.

Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) Infections

Reactivation of herpes simplex virus (HSV) can occur during or after a measles infection, leading to herpetic stomatitis or cold sores. These painful blisters can form on the lips, gums, and other oral tissues, further complicating oral health during the recovery phase of measles.


Impact on Oral Hygiene and Dental Care

The systemic symptoms of measles, such as high fever, malaise, and general discomfort, can lead to neglect of oral hygiene. This neglect, combined with a weakened immune system, increases the risk of dental problems, such as:

  • Dental Caries
  • Gingivitis and Periodontitis


Dental Caries

Reduced oral hygiene during a measles infection can lead to an increased risk of dental caries. The presence of Koplik’s spots, ulcerative stomatitis, and secondary infections can make routine oral care, like brushing and flossing, more painful and challenging. This can result in the buildup of plaque and the development of cavities.

Gingivitis and Periodontitis

Poor oral hygiene and the immunosuppressive effects of measles can contribute to the development of gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums. If left untreated, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, a more severe form of gum disease that can lead to tooth loss and other serious oral health issues.


Considerations for Dental Care During Measles

Providing dental care to patients with measles requires special considerations to ensure the safety of both the patient and the dental care team:

  • Infection Control
  • Isolation
  • Protective Equipment
  • Disinfection


Infection Control

Measles is highly contagious, so strict infection control measures are necessary to prevent the spread of the virus in dental settings. This includes:


Patients with active measles should be isolated to prevent transmission. Non-urgent dental procedures should be postponed until the patient is no longer contagious.

Protective Equipment

Dental care providers should use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gloves, and eye protection, when treating patients with measles.


Thorough disinfection of all surfaces and instruments is crucial to prevent the spread of the virus.


Pain Management

Managing pain and discomfort is essential for patients with oral manifestations of measles. This may involve:

  • Topical Anesthetics
  • Systemic Pain Relief


Topical Anesthetics

Use of topical anesthetics to relieve pain from ulcerative stomatitis and other oral lesions.

Systemic Pain Relief

Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help reduce fever and alleviate pain.


Hydration and Nutrition

Ensuring adequate hydration and nutrition is critical, especially for young children who may struggle with eating and drinking due to oral pain. Recommendations include:

  • Soft Diet
  • Hydration


Soft Diet

Providing a soft diet that is easier to chew and swallow, such as soups, smoothies, and mashed vegetables.


Encouraging regular fluid intake to prevent dehydration.


Post-Measles Dental Care

After recovering from measles, patients should receive a comprehensive dental evaluation to address any oral health issues that may have arisen during the infection. Post-measles dental care may include:

  • Dental Cleaning
  • Restoration of Dental Health
  • Education on Oral Hygiene


Dental Cleaning

A professional dental cleaning to remove plaque and tartar buildup that may have accumulated during the illness. This helps to reduce the risk of dental caries and gum disease.

Restoration of Dental Health

Any cavities or dental issues identified during the post-measles evaluation should be promptly addressed. This may involve fillings, extractions, or other restorative procedures to ensure optimal oral health.

Education on Oral Hygiene

Providing education on proper oral hygiene practices to prevent future dental problems. This includes guidance on brushing, flossing, and regular dental check-ups.



Measles remains a significant global health challenge, but it is a preventable disease. The history of measles, from its first descriptions to the development of the vaccine, highlights the remarkable progress made in controlling this disease. However, the recent resurgence of measles in various parts of the world underscores the importance of maintaining high vaccination coverage and addressing the challenges that hinder elimination efforts.

By strengthening health systems, addressing vaccine hesitancy, enhancing surveillance and outbreak response, reaching underserved populations, and fostering global collaboration, we can move closer to a world free of measles. The success of measles elimination programs in several regions demonstrates that with sustained commitment and effort, we can protect future generations from this preventable disease.

Measles, while primarily known for its systemic symptoms, has significant implications for oral health. From the characteristic Koplik’s spots to secondary infections and the impact on oral hygiene, measles can lead to various dental concerns. Effective infection control measures, pain management, and post-measles dental care are essential to address these issues and ensure optimal oral health for patients. Ultimately, prevention through vaccination remains the most powerful tool in combating measles and its associated dental concerns.

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