You Might Not Be Fully Vaccinated Against Measles Even Though You Think You Are

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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You’ve probably heard by now that the number of measles cases in the U.S. is reaching a record high. The measles were considered eliminated nearly two decades ago, but they’ve made a frightening come back over the past few years, mostly due to folks who choose not to vaccinate their kids.

According to the most recent reports, there have been 555 confirmed cases of measles this year – the highest number in the past five years. This is freaking terrifying. And if you think measles is just one of those ordinary childhood viruses that we are all supposed to get, no big deal, think again.

According to the CDC, normal cases of measles can cause a very high fever, cough, runny nose, ear infections – and of course, that telltale rash. But in young children or any vulnerable or immune-compromised person, measles can cause very serious symptoms, including pneumonia, lifelong brain damage, hearing loss, and death. In fact, 28% of kids under 5 who get the measles need to be hospitalized.

Now, if you are like me, when you hear scary stats like these, you console yourself by remembering that you and your kids are fully vaccinated. And although not perfect, the full measles vaccination, the MMR shot, offers 97% protection against the measles. (And this is a very good thing, because the measles happen to be one the most freaking contagious viruses out there.)

However, it turns out that some of us who thought we were definitely fully vaccinated against the measles actually might not be, especially if we were born between 1957 and 1989. OH SHIT, right?

Well, don’t panic yet.

Here’s what you need to know. Full vaccination for measles requires two shots of the MMR vaccine. Almost everyone born before 1957 was exposed to the measles and is more than likely immune (though it’s recommended that you check with your doctor if you have any questions about that). The MMR vaccine was rolled out in 1957 and most of us got it (this was before the bonkers anti-vaxx movement, thank goodness).

However, between the years 1957 and 1989, the shot was only typically administered once rather than the two times it is recommended to be administered now. Hence the problem.

“For a lot of people who were born after 1957 but prior to 1989-1990, there was only one dose that was recommended at that time,” Leigh-Anne Stafford, a spokeswoman for the Oakland County Health Division, explained to Detroit Free Press, “A lot of people might feel they are up to date on their vaccines because their parents may say, ‘Oh, you’re up to date. We vaccinated you.’ But they’re not.”

So how would you know if you fall into that category?

“People of all ages (should) check their vaccination status and make sure that they have had two documented MMRs after 1 year old, or they have had a blood test to confirm their immunity to measles,” Dr. Janet Snider, a Detroit pediatrician, told the Detroit Free Press.

You may find that even if you received only one shot, your immunity is still high enough. According to Russell Faust, medical director for Michigan’s Oakland County health department, one dose of MMR is still 93% effective. However, Faust tells The Washington Post, anyone born between 1957 and 1989 can just go ahead and get a second dose.

And what if you already got two, but you just aren’t sure? It isn’t harmful to get three doses, he says.

“There’s no downside to getting an MMR, especially during an outbreak,” says Faust.

Still confused? Talk to your doctor about the best approach here. Your doctor can decide if a blood test to evaluate your immunity is warranted, or if going ahead and giving you an extra MMR shot is the best strategy.

Visiting your doctor is certainly most pressing if you live in an area currently experiencing higher than normal measles cases, such Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas or Washington. (Ummm, pretty much everywhere?)

But it’s also important to get checked out if you have a medical condition that would make you more vulnerable to measles complications, if you have young children, you’re pregnant, or if you are elderly or a caretaker for an older person.

Really, everyone should be fully vaccinated against the measles, because even if the most catastrophic effects of the measles might not affect you directly, immunizing yourself is just being a decent human being and doing your part to protect others. Honestly, at this point, choosing to just cross your fingers and hope for the best is not just a lousy strategy – it’s one that can endanger both yourself and your fellow citizens.

So talk to your doctor, keep up with your kids’ vaccine schedule, and urge anyone who is considering skipping the MMR shot to please please read some peer reviewed studies, talk to actual medical professionals, and just get your damn shots.

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