Measles outbreaks are making headlines, and many parents are rightfully wondering if they are at risk of contracting the disease, even if they were vaccinated as a kid. The good news is, you’re probably protected. “If you are an adult born after 1970 you probably have received one dose of MMR, the measles-containing vaccine, and it’s probably enough,” says Anne Pham-Huy, vice chair of Immunize Canada and a paediatric infectious disease physician at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. Here’s what you need to know to make sure you’re protected:
One vaccination for measles was the norm in Canada if you were born between 1970 and the mid 1990s. One vaccination is close to 95 percent effective in preventing measles. A second shot brings the immunity closer to 100 percent, which is why the second shot was introduced in the mid nineties. (If you were born before 1970, you are assumed to have acquired immunity by being exposed to measles in the community.)
Some public health units, such as the City of Toronto, recommend that everyone born between 1970 and 1995 get a second measles shot. Starting in 1996 to 1997, there were “catch up campaigns” in Canada so that school-aged kids and teenagers could get a second dose of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, but it wasn’t universal.
Health Canada’s Canadian Immunization Guide has its own recommendations. It says if you’ve only had one MMR vaccine and are a health care worker, a student in a post-secondary education setting (because of communal living and a higher tendency to say, share a glass), a member of the military, or you travel outside of North America, it is highly recommended (and in some cases, required) that you get a second shot.
If you're an adult who has only had one measles vaccination, you can get the second shot (if eligible) at your doctor’s office or at your public health office. If you’re following the recommended immunization schedule for your province or territory, there isn’t a fee for the MMR vaccine.
The measles vaccine is not likely to wear off, says Ian Gemmill, a doctor in Kingston, Ont. and a former chair of Immunize Canada. “The ‘wearing off’ of vaccine immunity tends to be in people who don’t have robust immune systems. Based on the evidence to date, two doses of the MMR vaccine should provide lifelong protection.” However it is true that some vaccines, such as those for tetanus and diptheria, do require booster shots to maintain immunity.
Try contacting your childhood family doctor or the public health unit in the area where you grew up. However, if you aren’t sure about your vaccination status, it’s safe to get another MMR vaccine, says Pham-Huy. “Repeating the vaccine, even if you had it before and it is an additional dose, is safe.” However, pregnant women or women who plan to become pregnant in the next four weeks should not get the measles vaccine. It’s safe to get the vaccine if you’re breastfeeding.
You can also ask your doctor about ordering a blood test that screens for measles antibodies (indicating that you’ve had the measles or have had a measles vaccine). That’s not routine though, and a doctor would evaluate the need on a case by case basis. “In general, the recommendation is that most people don’t need to go and get a blood test to check for immunity or antibodies,” says Pham-Huy, explaining that there is a cost to the test and the results take some time to come back.
Most newcomers will have their immunization status reviewed when they move here, says Pham-Huy. “The general guideline is if the documentation is unclear, just get another vaccine and then you’re sure you’re protected.”
Measles is still quite common in other parts of the world, including Asia, Africa and Europe and so the MMR vaccine is definitely something they look at and will administer if you need it. “Normally at a travel clinic, they should review to make sure that you’re up to date with routine vaccines and this should include the measles-containing vaccine,” says Pham-Huy.
According to the Center for Disease Control, kids under five and adults over 20 are more likely to suffer complications from measles. These include pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). Since you are contagious before you feel sick, you risk infecting babies or people with compromised immune systems, such as people getting chemotherapy. If you get measles when you’re pregnant, you’re at higher risk for miscarriage, pre-term birth or a low birth-weight baby.