How can I protect my infant from measles until she can get the vaccine?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

My daughter is 4 months old. How can I protect her from measles until she is old enough to get the vaccine?

DEAR READER:

In an earlier column, I discussed the value of the measles vaccine in children who are old enough to get it — at least 12 months old.

But you ask a different, and important, question: Since kids like your daughter who are younger than 12 months can get measles, but can’t get the vaccine, is there any way to protect them? Even though most cases of the measles are not serious, some kids can become very sick. And kids under the age of 12 months are most likely to get dangerously sick from measles.

Even though your daughter is not yet old enough to get the vaccine, the vaccine is already protecting her. (I’ll explain how below.) It is a really effective vaccine. Before it was available — as when I was a kid — half a million children got measles every year in the United States.

Then, in 1968, scientists introduced the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Most parents insisted that their kids get the vaccine, and they were proven right: Between 2001 and 2004, only 251 cases of measles were reported in the U.S. That’s a successful vaccine.

Unfortunately, things have started to change for the worse. The number of kids getting measles each year has been rising. That’s because, for about 20 years, a growing number of parents have been reluctant to have their children get the recommended vaccines.

How is the vaccine protecting your daughter? The greatest threat of her catching the measles in the next eight months is from other kids who haven’t gotten the vaccine. Why? Because when the measles virus moves through a community, every time it comes to a person who has received the vaccine, it stops: Since the immunized child won’t get the measles, that child won’t be able to spread the virus to a child who is too young to get the vaccine.

There are things you can do to reduce your daughter’s risk in the next eight months:

  • Frequently wash your hands, and your child’s hands, with soap and warm water. This helps prevent the spread of measles and many other infections.
  • Ask the parents of children who might come in contact with your daughter if their kids have received the measles vaccine.

If, despite these efforts, your daughter is exposed to a child with measles, she may be eligible for an injection of immune globulin (IG). IG boosts the body’s immune response, and it can prevent, or at least minimize, the symptoms of a measles infection.

If you and your daughter will be traveling to a part of the world where measles is still common, your pediatrician may recommend she get one dose of MMR vaccine. It may offer some protection, even though she is not yet 12 months old.