The United States is in the throes of the largest outbreak of measles since the disease was eliminated in 2000, with more than 700 cases reported in 22 states.
Measles is incredibly contagious: An estimated 90% of people who are not immunized who come into contact with someone with the disease will catch it themselves, which is why health officials around the country are urging parents to make sure their children are up to date with their vaccines.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends two doses of the measles mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine ― one between the ages of 1 and 15 months, and a second between the ages of 4 and 6.
But adults around the country ― particularly those living in areas with large, ongoing outbreaks ― are wondering what they need to know about their own vaccination status, and whether to take any additional steps to further protect themselves.
Here’s an expert’s take on how to determine your vaccination and immunity status against the measles:
Ask your parents if you were vaccinated.
The simplest place to start is simply asking your parents or caregivers if you were vaccinated when you were a child, according to Matthew Zahn, chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Although the recent outbreaks have been fueled by parents who oppose vaccinations, vaccination rates in the U.S. are generally very high. And once you’ve received your two doses, you are usually considered to be protected for life.
“The gold standard is to get two doses of the MMR vaccine,” Zahn told HuffPost. “Once you have gotten that, no matter what risk you’re talking about, there is no indication to get a booster. If you got those two doses two decades ago, there is not a recommendation that you get ‘boosted’ again.”
If that step doesn’t provide information, you can find out by doing a little digging.
If you were vaccinated decades ago, before medical files were stored and shared electronically, you might need to reach out to your old health care provider (or providers) directly to see what files they can dig up, which will likely involve phone calls and faxed requests — in other words, a bit of work. You can also check to see if the health department in the state where you grew up is one that keeps vaccine records.
Another option is to get a blood test to see if you are immune to the measles, but Zahn emphasized that it likely is not necessary for most adults who aren’t health care workers (who need documented evidence of immunity for their jobs), or those who don’t have a specific reason to believe they were not vaccinated as children.
Chat with your physician about your specific options. If you were born before 1957, you probably don’t need to worry about your vaccination status: People in that age group were likely infected with measles, mumps and rubella viruses in childhood and are likely, therefore, immune.
If you were vaccinated in the 1960s, you might need another dose of the vaccine.
There is a small subset of adults born in the 1960s who might need to be revaccinated, according to experts. For a few years in that decade, some providers offered the inactivated or “killed” measles vaccine, which is not effective.
The CDC says that if you have evidence that you received the live version of the vaccine at that time, you’re fine. But if you’re not sure, you should talk to your provider about the possibility of getting one dose of the live vaccine. A blood test can likely determine your status if you were vaccinated during that timeframe.
You can get the measles if you’ve been vaccinated, but the odds are extremely low.
“There are occasional cases of people who’ve been vaccinated — gotten two doses — who then develop illness,” Zahn said. “But they are exceedingly rare … and even for the people who have breakthrough illness, the symptoms are mild and they are very rarely infectious to other people.”
However, you can still talk to your doctor about getting a blood test if it’s something you’re worried about.
The bottom line? Be smart, and proactive if you believe you need to be.
“Most of us, we think we’ve been vaccinated, but we just can’t remember,” Zahn said. “For those people, if you don’t have specific risks, there isn’t a need to take action. But if you have any concerns, talk to your doctor.”