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What New Measles Outbreaks Mean for Older Adults 

CDC says international travel is behind the outbreaks in U.S.

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En español | Add measles to the list of things to consider before traveling abroad. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), international travelers are behind recent measles outbreaks across the country, which occur when susceptible people contract the virus abroad and spread it upon returning home. So far this year, the CDC has reported 268 cases of measles in 15 states, including California, New York and Texas. 

The good news, according to William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, is that the vast majority of older adults need not worry about contracting (or spreading) the virus. Anyone born in the United States prior to 1957 is considered immune to measles, because almost everyone in that age group was exposed to the virus before a vaccine was available. People born after 1957 who were properly vaccinated, or who contracted measles, are also protected. 

That leaves a “minuscule” percentage of older adults who may be susceptible, Schaffner says. If you were born after 1957 and were neither vaccinated nor had measles, ask your health care provider for a dose of the MMR vaccine, which is 93 percent effective at stopping the virus. The same rule applies if you’re not sure — for example, you were born after 1957, don’t remember whether you had measles, and don’t know if you were vaccinated. “When in doubt,” Schaffner says, “immunize.” 

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These guidelines are especially important for anyone planning to travel abroad. According to the CDC, all of this year’s outbreaks can be traced to travelers who carried measles back from abroad, subsequently spreading the virus at home, particularly in U.S. communities where many people — and children in particular, according to Schaffner — are unvaccinated. 

The jump from airplane to neighborhood makes sense because measles is a highly contagious disease. According to the CDC, an infected individual will spread the virus to 90 percent of non-immune people around them. And because the virus can live in the air for up to two hours, it’s possible for a susceptible person to catch measles just by being in a room where an infected person has been. 

A CDC measles travel notice is currently in place for 17 countries, including popular destinations like England, France and Italy. All susceptible adults planning on traveling internationally, the agency says, should receive not one but two doses of the MMR vaccine, given at least 28 days apart. Two doses are 97 percent effective at stopping the virus. 

And if you’re traveling abroad with grandchildren, Schaffner says, make sure they’re up to date on their MMR shots, too. “Do not take an unvaccinated grandchild abroad,” he says.