The Measles: Are You Really Immune?

Outbreaks were once eradicated in the U.S., but now there are over a thousand cases each year



Until a few years ago, it was rare to hear about any measles cases. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 1,172 cases of the measles reported in the United States from January 1 to August 1, 2019. 

To help you determine if you’re still immune, or in need of a booster vaccination, have a look at the guidelines below. 

About the Measles Vaccine

It used to be common for children to contract the measles by the time they were 15. It's estimated that 3 to 4 million people contracted the measles each year, but after the measles vaccine became available in 1963, this number declined until the United States considered the disease eradicated in 2000. 

Recent outbreaks are a result of many factors, including some parents choosing not to vaccinate their children. 

How to know if you’re immune to the measles

First, if you were born before 1957, you're considered naturally immune because you likely were already infected with the disease prior to when the vaccine was in use.

Next, if you received two doses of the combination MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine as a child or adult, you are considered immune to the measles, though boosters may be recommended in instances of an outbreak.

Finally, if you don’t know your vaccination status, you can have your immunity tested via a lab. These tests can be arranged through your physician’s office.

What to do if you're worried about your immunity

In rare cases, immunity to the measles can wane as you get older, and even if you’ve already been vaccinated, there is no harm in getting a booster. Or, you can have your immunity tested, as mentioned above, through a simple blood sample.

This could be especially important for people who don't have their childhood vaccination records on-hand. It could also be advisable for vulnerable populations who are fully vaccinated to have their immunity checked. This includes adults traveling overseas, the elderly, or even healthcare workers and people who are students because they often have a high risk of exposure to new cases.

If a blood test reveals that your immunity has fallen, you’ll be given a single-dose MMR vaccine to get you back up to snuff.

People who should avoid the MMR vaccine

It's always wise to have a conversation with a physician who knows your medical history before getting any vaccine. There are a few populations that should avoid the vaccine.

If you are pregnant, you should not receive the MMR vaccine. However, if you are trying to become pregnant and want to ensure you’re immune, medical professionals advise getting a booster shot and waiting at least one month before becoming pregnant.

Next, anyone with a severe (life-threatening) allergy to an ingredient used in the vaccine should avoid the vaccine. Those living with autoimmune disorders and those with other medical conditions that could have compromised the immune system should speak to their physician before receiving the shot.

Those with blood conditions that cause easy bruising or bleeding should avoid the vaccine. If you’ve recently received a blood transfusion (or an infusion of plasma or platelets), contact your doctor before getting the vaccine.

Finally, if you’re currently ill, medical professionals advise you wait until you’re fully recovered before getting a booster shot (or the complete MMR vaccine). 

The sum-up

The good news is if you were vaccinated already against the measles, you're likely still immune. If adults typically had their immunity decrease, the outbreaks would have been considerably more extensive than they currently are.

When in doubt, talk to your physician about your vaccination history, travel plans and risk for being exposed to the measles. A simple conversation can help you determine what steps, if any, are necessary to get you back to fully immune. 

E. Napoletano is an award-winning journalist and the recipient of the 2019 Illinois Women’s Press Association first-place prize for her feature on the traumatic effects of family separation policies at the border.