Virginia health officials are warning travelers of possible measles exposure. Do I need to worry?

The measles virus, which spreads through close contact.
Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by the measles virus, which spreads through close contact. (Kateryna Kon/Science Photo Library) (Getty Images/Science Photo Libra)

Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, so why are we still talking about it in 2024? Here’s what you need to know.

What's happening

On Saturday, Virginia health officials warned travelers of possible measles exposure at D.C. airports after a person with a confirmed case of the disease passed through the area while returning home from an international trip.

The Virginia Department of Health said any unvaccinated individuals who were at the international arrivals area of the main terminal at Dulles International Airport between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. ET on Jan. 3, or at Terminal A at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport between 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 4, should continue to monitor for symptoms until Jan. 25.

This isn’t the first time measles has made headlines in recent months. Outbreaks have been popping up across the U.S., and measles deaths worldwide jumped 40% last year. In June, Maryland reported its first confirmed case of the disease since 2019.

Do I need to worry?

Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by the measles virus, which spreads through close contact with infected nasal or throat droplets.

Dr. Jason Zucker, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, tells Yahoo Life that although measles has been eliminated in the U.S., it has not been eliminated worldwide, so outbreaks can still occur when it’s “imported into the U.S.”

“In highly vaccinated populations, outbreaks are small if they occur at all. However, if it finds an unvaccinated community it can spread rapidly because it’s highly contagious,” he says. “This is why we continue to see cases of measles in the U.S., but outbreaks are often small or contained to communities with low vaccination rates.”

Zucker says unvaccinated young children are at the highest risk of measles and its complications, including death. The World Health Organization estimates that 128,000 people died from measles worldwide in 2021 — mostly children under age 5. Pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are also at elevated risk.

But most people don’t need to worry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “while we expect importations of measles cases into the United States to continue, the risk for measles for the majority of the population would still remain low” because “most people in the United States are vaccinated against measles.”

Once vaccinated, your chances of contracting measles is very low; one dose of the vaccine is 93% effective at preventing measles, while two doses is 97% effective.

“Most people who received two doses of the measles vaccine as children are protected for life, and protection against severe disease is maintained,” Zucker says.

What can I do about it?

Get vaccinated. Today, most children get their first dose of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine between 12 and 15 months old and a second dose between 4 and 6 years old. Most teens and adults with no evidence of measles immunity are advised to get at least one shot, though the CDC notes that individuals born before 1957 probably don’t need the MMR vaccine because “the majority of people born before 1957 are likely to have been infected naturally and therefore are presumed to be protected against measles, mumps and rubella.”

People without measles immunity can also be given the vaccine within 72 hours of exposure; if measles still develops, it usually has milder symptoms and lasts for a shorter time.

If you’ve been exposed and you’re not vaccinated, not sure if you’re vaccinated or choose not to be vaccinated, look out for the symptoms of measles, including:

  • High fever

  • Cough

  • Runny nose

  • Watery, red eyes

  • White spots inside the mouth

  • A skin rash that starts on the face and spreads

More severe cases can lead to pneumonia, swelling of the brain and even death. If you notice measles symptoms, Virginia health officials urge you to isolate away from others and contact your health care provider right away.

"Call ahead before going to your health care provider's office or the emergency room to notify them that you may have been exposed to measles and ask them to call the health department. This will help protect other patients and staff," officials say.

The main takeaway

Measles can be a scary and even deadly disease, especially for young children, and there’s no specific treatment available. In the U.S. according to historical data approximately 1 in 4 cases result in hospitalization, and 1 in 1,000 cases result in death.

Fortunately, being vaccinated can eliminate a lot of the danger posed by the disease. “The measles vaccine is very effective,” Zucker says, “so if you've been vaccinated, you're well protected.”