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Measles virus is a spherical single-stranded RNA virus belonging to the paramyxoviridae family. It is spread by airborne droplets causing rash, cough and fever which lasts for several days. Although there is no treatment, most infected individuals recover by themselves. However, complications due to pneumonia occur in 2–27% of cases causing 56–86% of all measles deaths. Less commonly, measles infection can cause serious neurological complications. Compared to smallpox, the measles virus is considerably more contagious, capable of causing large outbreaks even in populations with high vaccine coverage. Nevertheless, measles shares several biological characteristics with smallpox which favour eradication: humans are the only reservoir for the virus (i.e. animals are not infected); measles causes a visible illness; infection leads to life-long immunity; cases often occur at regular intervals enabling the targeting of interventions; measles virus has only one genetic serotype which is relatively stable over time; an effective vaccine is available and accurate laboratory identification is possible.
Global eradication of measles is more difficult than for smallpox, mostly due to the greater virulence of the virus, needing almost universal vaccine coverage. However, success in the Americas has shown that measles eradication is technically feasible using existing vaccines and vaccination programmes. Growing international support, to deliver these programmes means that measles, like smallpox, can very well become a curiosity of history.