A New York City theater worker who had been vaccinated against measles contracted the disease and passed it on to four other people, according to a new story from Science NOW.
Conventional wisdom has it that those who receive a measles vaccination shortly after their first birthday and follow that up with a booster shot as a toddler are immune for life against the potentially fatal skin and respiratory disease. Furthermore, it was thought that, should such a person become infected, that person would not be contagious.
In the case of the New York theater worker neither turned out to be true. In 2011, the 22-year-old woman, who the article refers to as “Measles Mary,” was released from hospitalization and quarantine even though she tested positive for measles. According to the article, health officials tracked 88 people whom she had contact with. They found that she passed the infection on to four of them, two of whom had been vaccinated for measles as well.
Subsequent blood tests revealed that, contrary to what was previously thought, immunity in individuals might actually break down over time.
If it turns out that people do lose immunity as they age it could pose a serious health threat.
Parents opting to obtain exemptions to keep their children from being vaccinated has become a real trend. An article for the website Live Science, earlier this year, reported that Washington, California and Vermont had all recently passed laws making it more difficult for parents to obtain those exemptions.
Health officials argue that unvaccinated children pose a threat to the greater population by creating holes in vaccination coverage that could allow certain diseases to gain a foothold.
"It's not about what's just good for my child. It's about what's good for the neighbor's child who might have a high risk for disease," said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University’s School of Medicine.
“The stakes are high,” he said.
Parents refusing to have children vaccinated coupled with waning immunity due to age could lead to a serious measles outbreak, according to Robert Jacobson of the Mayo Clinic. A vaccine failure rate of even 3 to 5 percent could devastate a high school with a few thousand students he said. He stressed that early vaccination is key to preventing such an outbreak even if the vaccine occasionally fails.
“The most important ‘vaccine failure’ with measles happens when people refuse the vaccine in the first place,” he said.