Five Figures to Consider
It was an unscientific study, but one with startling results. Six people born and vaccinated against measles in the 1960s recently had blood tests for measles immunity. Only one was immune. Five others needed to be revaccinated. One of them was this writer. (Thank you to the friend who tipped her off!)
Have you checked your own immunity? Not all measles vaccines were equally effective, and if you live in one of the five states currently experiencing outbreaks (New York, California, Michigan, New Jersey and Washington) or are traveling internationally, you should visit your doctor’s office to get tested. Measles is one of the most contagious of all infectious diseases. It’s spread by airborne droplets from breathing, coughing and sneezing that remain active in the air and on surfaces for as long as two hours. Its telltale rash doesn’t appear until four days after infection so carriers often don’t know they are infected. Unsurprisingly, nine out of ten susceptible people develop measles after coming in close contact with a measles patient.
In addition to the measles rash, sufferers experience acute flu-like symptoms, and in one out of 1,000 cases develop encephalitis, a dangerous swelling of the brain. Just last month an El Al flight attendant contracted measles on a flight from New York to Tel Aviv, Israel. She developed meningoencephalitis, fell into a coma and is believed to have suffered brain damage. The Israeli government has ordered domestic airlines to vaccinate their employees.
So far this year, 695 cases of measles have been reported in the U.S., the highest since the Centers for Disease Control declared measles eliminated in the U.S. in 2000 and on track to surpass the 1994 high of 963 cases. Sixty-nine new cases have been reported just this week. While this year’s infections have been documented in 22 states, outbreaks (defined as three or more cases) have been concentrated in communities that have shunned vaccinations such as the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City and Rockland County, New York, (where 68 of last week’s 71 new cases occurred) and among anti-vaxxers in the Pacific Northwest.
Most U.S. measles cases can be traced to international travel, and outbreaks occur when infected travelers return home to poorly vaccinated communities. Measles is still a common disease in parts of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Currently five countries are on the CDC’s measles outbreak list – Israel, Ukraine, Japan, Brazil and the Philippines. The CDC recommends all international travelers and anyone born after 1957 who does not have documentation of immunity get revaccinated. (Those born before 1957 are presumed to be immune as a result of being exposed to at least two measles outbreaks.)
What counts as documentation of immunity? Proof of receiving the scheduled doses of a vaccine containing a live measles virus. Unfortunately, many people vaccinated in the 1960s received a vaccine made with a “killed” virus that was ineffective. So if you were vaccinated in the 1960s and don’t have records indicating you received the live measles vaccine, go get a blood test. The inactive vaccine was sold between 1963 and 1967. According to a 1999-2004 survey, the lowest level of measles immunity is in adults born during the years of 1967 through 1976.
Most insurance plans are required to cover recommended vaccines. However, coverage may be offered under your medical rather than your pharmacy plan. So if you are picking up the vaccine at a pharmacy to be administered at your doctor’s office, you may have to pay full-price then submit the bill to your insurance company for reimbursement. If you don’t have insurance, find a federal health clinic near you or check your state health department website. At private pharmacies the vaccine can cost $75 to $100, but the federal government pays just $21 a dose.
Centers for Disease Control, Mayo Clinic