Measles Lands an Israeli Flight Attendant in a Coma — How You Can Check Your Immunity Status

Apr 18, 2019

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A 43-year-old El Al flight attendant has been in a coma for 10-days after contracting measles, CNN reported Wednesday. She’s thought to have contracted the virus in either Israel or New York, two places where measles cases have been appearing at a rapid rate in 2019.

The hospitalization of the flight attendant is due to encephalitis, or brain swelling, which is a well-known and potentially fatal complication of measles. Although she was administered the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) shot as a child, she only received one round of the vaccinations — leaving her at 93% immunity rather than the standard 97%.

This specific instance, in which the MMR vaccination failed, is considered a rarity. However, according to Dr. Manisha Patel — team leader for measles epidemiology at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — two-thirds of the recent cases in the US come from unvaccinated travelers who contract the disease abroad and bring it back home.

The solution to this is fairly simple: if you want to avoid contracting measles, get vaccinated. But this argument, in a way, also glosses over some of the important nuances that are causing measles to spread so rapidly.

A lot of travelers out there might be like the Israeli flight attendant. It’s not uncommon for people born before the second MMR shot was made a necessity in 1989 to have only 93% immunity. Then, there are people who never received the vaccination at all and just aren’t aware. No one remembers being 6 to 12 months old, and there are no travel sanctions that prevent people from traveling without the MMR vaccine.

This is why it’s vital for travelers that aren’t sure of their vaccination status to seek out evidence of immunity. The CDC defines this as written documentation of adequate vaccination either as a child or an adult, laboratory evidence of immunity, laboratory confirmation of measles, or a date of birth before 1957.

(Birth before 1957 provides only presumptive evidence for measles, mumps, and rubella. Before vaccines were available, nearly everyone was infected with measles, mumps, and rubella viruses during childhood. The majority of people born before 1957 are likely to have been infected naturally.)

Here is where it gets a little complicated: people who received a form of the measles vaccine in the 1960s likely don’t have to be vaccinated, but if they should double check to see if they received a “live” measles vaccine. Anyone vaccinated with either an inactivated (killed) measles vaccine or measles vaccine of “unknown type” should be revaccinated. The CDC recommends this to protect those who may have received an ineffective measles vaccine, which was administered between 1963-1967.

And if you can’t find evidence, contact your physician. The MMR vaccine is completely and totally safe to get as an adult, and there is no risk in getting another dose if you’re not sure about your immunity status.

Featured image by JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images.

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