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The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing

Measles and Handwashing Fact Sheet

February 4, 2015

Measles and handwashing

Measles is a highly contagious viral respiratory infection that is one of the leading causes of death for children under the age of 5 worldwide. People with measles develop a cough, runny nose, fever, red eyes, and then a rash that spreads over the body. Measles can cause complications including ear infections, pneumonia, blindness, brain infections, and death. Children who are malnourished or have problems with their immune system are at particular risk of developing these complications. There is no specific treatment, but measles is prevented through vaccination.  More information about measles is available on the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention website.

How does measles spread?

Someone who has never been vaccinated and never had measles is susceptible. They can catch the infection from anyone who has measles and is currently infectious; someone is infectious with measles approximately four days prior to the onset of the rash to four days after the rash appears. Research shows that nine out of every ten susceptible people who are in close contact with someone who has measles becomes infected.

When someone infected with measles coughs or sneezes they spray infected droplets from their nose, mouth, and throat into the air, where the droplets become suspended. If these infected droplets come into contact with an unvaccinated person’s mucous membranes in their eyes, nose, or mouth during this time, they can infect that person with measles. As with other respiratory viruses, a person susceptible to measles can become infected if they:

  • Breathe in the virus from the air;
  • Get infected droplets in their eyes, nose or mouth after an infected person coughs or sneezes; or
  • Get infected droplets on their hands, either from direct contact with the infected person’s bodily fluids (for example, by shaking an infected person’s hand after they cough or sneeze into it) or from touching a surface where the droplets have landed, such as a used tissue or a door handle.

Droplets containing the measles virus can remain infectious both in the air and on surfaces for up to two hours.

How good handwashing practices can help prevent measles transmission

Vaccination prevents measles. However, if you are unvaccinated, handwashing can play a role in helping prevent the transmission of the virus. If your hands come into contact with any measles-infected droplets, and you touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you can transmit the virus into your body. If you are unvaccinated and susceptible, this can cause measles.

“Handwashing protection works by removing the tiny droplets containing the measles virus from your hands before they get a chance to infect you or transfer to someone else,” says Dr. Layla McCay, Secretariat Director of the Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing.  To wash your hands properly you should wet your hands with water, lather with soap for 20 seconds, rinse with running water, and dry your hands.

Remove the virus from your hands:  You should use soap and running water to clean your hands, particularly when they are visibly dirty or soiled. If soap and water are not available, and your hands are not visibly dirty/soiled, you may alternatively use alcohol-based hand rub (at least 60% alcohol).

The World Health Organization offers instructions for both types of hand hygiene here. For more information about the full range of methods to help prevent measles, please see the CDC website.

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