Since January 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported nearly 850 cases of measles in 23 states – the largest number of measles infections since 1994. Most people who have been infected were unvaccinated. Although measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, it has made a recent comeback, thanks to travelers bringing the virus in from other countries and a growing population of unvaccinated Americans. How worried should you be?
“For most adults, it’s probably not an issue,” says Kevin Winthrop, MD, professor of infectious diseases and public health at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “The risk is very low, at least in the U.S. Of course, the risk could grow if case levels continue to rise.”
You probably don’t need to do anything if you were born before 1957 or if you’ve been vaccinated. The first measles vaccine was introduced in 1963. People who were born before 1957 were almost certainly exposed to measles and are now immune to the virus. Those who were vaccinated in childhood or later should continue to be protected. “If you don’t remember having the measles vaccine, your doctor can do a blood test to see if you’re immune,” Dr. Winthrop says.
What to Do If You’re Not Immune
The CDC recommends that people who aren’t immune get at least one shot of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. An exception is if you have a weakened immune system from taking a biologic drug or high-dose corticosteroid to treat rheumatoid arthritis or another autoimmune form of arthritis. MMR is a live (but weakened) vaccine, and there is a small risk that you could get measles.
“In general, people with a suppressed immune system don’t get the vaccine,” Dr. Winthrop says. “If they’re on high-dose prednisone, generally we take them off of their medications to vaccinate them.”
If you can’t get vaccinated, stay away from anyone with measles. And if your grandchildren are not vaccinated, protect yourself and your loved ones by having a talk with your children. “Encourage your kids to vaccinate their children,” Dr. Winthrop advises. “That’s the cause of the problem right now. If everyone was vaccinating, we wouldn’t have this issue.”