Disney has spent a lot of time in the news in the past couple weeks and not in a good way. The California amusement park is linked to over a hundred cases of measles, a disease the US reported eliminated in 2000. While the disease may have started its outbreak in a theme park, its affect isn’t limited to children nor is it child’s play. Many people my age and older remember having measles as children and indeed a lot of people consider measles a children’s disease. However, of the affected persons in that outbreak, 92 percent of them are adults over the age of 20 and at least one was 70. The majority were unvaccinated.
The first live measles vaccine was introduced in 1963 (an improved version was introduced in 1968). The vaccine, when it became available contributed to our current much lower infection rate and the result was a drop from 3 to 4 million cases each year to an average of less than 100 cases a year since about 2000. Because we lose immunity from measles at about 1 year of age when the immunity we got from our mother’s wears off, we tended to get the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine soon after our first birthday. What’s changed is that there are large communities of people who choose not to get vaccinated on personal or religious grounds and of course we are more globally connected than ever before and many of those other countries haven’t eliminated measles. Like most vaccinations, the herd immunity threshold protects most people from getting the disease as long as 92 to 94 percent of the population is immune. When that percent drops, populations set the stage for outbreaks. That’s what we have now.
Measles is a highly infectious disease. Its complications include ear infections (which can result in permanent hearing loss), bronchitis, laryngitis or croup, pneumonia, encephalitis (which can result in deaf or mentally impaired victims), problems with pregnancy and low platelet count (affecting the ability of the infected person’s blood to clot). In some cases, people die.
Should you be concerned about getting measles as an older adult? Like so many things it depends. So, here are the latest recommendations from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
You do not need a vaccine if:
- You are a man born before 1957
- You are a woman born before 1957 AND you are not planning to have more children, have already had the rubella vaccine or have had a positive rubella test
- A blood test shows you are immune to measles, mumps and rubella
- You’ve already had two doses of MMR OR one dose of MMR plus a second dose of measles vaccine
- You’ve already had one dose of MMR AND are not at high risk of measles exposure
The vaccination causes the body to build an immunity that lasts a lifetime for 95 percent of children. A second dose (a booster) is recommended for those 5 percent who did not develop an immunity.
Doctors recommend that adults who don’t fall into the categories above but have some forms of HIV, kidney disease or poor kidney function, a spleen that does not work well or you don’t have one, heart disease, chronic lung disease, chronic alcoholism, type 1 or type 2 diabetes or chronic liver disease should get the vaccination unless their healthcare professional tells them that it is either not safe or that they don’t need it. People with a weakened immune system, pregnant women and some people with HIV should not get vaccinated.
If you travel a lot you should also talk to your doctor about whether or not you need the vaccination since it is still a problem in many other countries.
If you were born between 1957 and 1971 you may not have received the vaccination or you may have received the earlier version of the vaccine which was less effective. If you have any question about your immunity you should check with your doctor about whether you might need either a vaccine or a booster.
Here’s an article with more information about the disease.
Taking care of your health is the single most significant step you can take to ensure you live and die well in retirement. While measles has a fairly low rate of mortality it can lead to diseases with higher rates of mortality or the risk of hospitalization. Measles can also lead to hearing loss. See links below to why you need to protect your hearing as you age. Measles is highly contagious, affecting 90 percent of people without immunization if they have been around an infected person. Vaccination against the virus is highly effective. Because it is so easily preventable, take the time to follow up on whether or not you need a vaccination or booster shot. There’s no sense in being at the very least miserable when a single step can prevent it from ever happening.