As of May 10, 2019, the Centers for Disease Control reports there have been 839 confirmed cases of measles in 23 states, making 2019 the year with the most cases reported in the U.S. since 1994. Currently, nine states are experiencing outbreaks: New York, Michigan (Rockland County and New York City), New Jersey, California (Butte County, L.A. County, and Sacramento County), Georgia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.
Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Yet despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine, the rise in current outbreaks has been traced to areas where there are large numbers of unvaccinated people. Also, travelers have brought the virus back from other countries where outbreaks are occurring, including Israel, Ukraine and the Philippines.
Given the current situation, you should make sure you are protected against this illness.
What Is Measles?
Measles is a highly contagious virus that is spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing. It can live for up to two hours in the air where an infected person sneezed or coughed.
About 7-14 days after a person is infected, they will begin experiencing symptoms, which include a high fever, cough, runny nose and red, watery eyes. Measles also produces a distinctive rash, characterized by red spots, which may have small, raised bumps on top.
Measles can lead to serious complications, especially in young children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, common complications include diarrhea and ear infections, which can result in permanent hearing loss. More severe complications include pneumonia and swelling of the brain, otherwise known as encephalitis, which can lead to hearing loss, intellectual disability and even death. About one in four people in the U.S. who get measles need to be hospitalized.
Are You Immune?
Even if you know you were vaccinated against measles as a child, you may not be protected. The current version of the vaccine, which includes two separate shots, became the standard as of 1989. That means that those over age 30 may have received a less effective vaccine, and are thus more vulnerable to infection.
Conversely, anyone born before 1957 is considered protected because they were likely exposed to the virus as children. Another complicating factor is that those vaccinated between 1963 and 1967 received an ineffective version of the vaccine.
For those reasons, it’s especially important for adults living in an area that is currently experiencing an outbreak to make sure you are protected. The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine available today is considered to be 97% effective at protecting against measles and should provide immunity for life. Even if you’ve only received one of the two MMR shots on or after your first birthday, you should have 93% protection — but high-risk individuals should get both.
“If you’re in a community where an outbreak is occurring, particularly if you’re part of the subgroup of the community that is a focus of the outbreak—for example, if you’re a member of the Orthodox Jewish community in New York, or have close friends who are—it becomes more of a pointed issue,” William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told Consumer Reports.
Other groups at high risk include international travelers, university students and those who work in the healthcare industry.
“As you make your plans for travel, ensure checking vaccination records is on your list,” Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state communicable disease epidemiologist in Colorado, told The Denver Post. “We encourage everyone, regardless of travel, to be up to date on all recommended vaccines.”
Do You Need A Booster Shot?
If you’re unsure of your vaccination status, you can get a blood test that checks for antibodies that signal that you are immune to measles. This is called titer testing, and it’s specifically designed how strong your immunity response is by looking at the amount and diversity of the antibodies present.
You can make an appointment for this test with your physician, and it is also available through walk-in clinics like the CVS Minute Clinic. The test may or may not be covered by insurance.
Another option is to simply get a current immunization, without first testing your status. There is no harm in getting revaccinated. Your doctor may administer the booster, as can walk-in clinics and pharmacies such as Walgreens. For a list of local places that can provide the vaccine, visit the federal government’s vaccines.gov website and do a search.
“When in doubt, immunize,” said Schaffner. “If you happen to be protected, it won’t hurt. If you’re not already protected, you will become protected.”