Amid the resurgence of measles in the U.S., several readers in their fifties and sixties have asked us if they should get vaccinated, especially if they can’t remember having had measles or getting the vaccine previously. Here’s our advice.
If you were born in the U.S. after 1957, you were probably vaccinated against measles. (Adults born before 1957 are presumed to be immune because they probably had measles as children.) But there’s no harm in getting the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine if you’re not sure you’re adequately immune to measles (more on this below).
Whether you need to be vaccinated depends on several factors, including your immunization history, your likelihood of coming into contact with someone who is infected, and whether you could transmit measles to someone at high risk of complications from it (such as an infant) if you became infected.
As a general rule, measles vaccination is most important for young children, among whom the virus can spread especially rapidly and who may have infant siblings at home who are too young to be vaccinated. For adults, the CDC recommends vaccination if you don’t have evidence of immunity to measles, defined as at least one of the following:
- Written documentation that you received, on or after your first birthday, at least one dose of live measles vaccine (which became widely available in 1968), if you’re at normal risk. If you’re in a high-risk group, you need two documented doses of the live vaccine, given at least 28 days apart. High-risk individuals include health care workers, college students, people traveling internationally, and people living in a community with a current measles outbreak.
- A laboratory-confirmed case of measles.
- Laboratory evidence of immunity (via a blood test for measles antibodies).
- Birth year before 1957.
If you don’t have evidence of immunity, you can either have a blood test for measles antibodies or simply get vaccinated. The second option is more efficient and puts less of a burden on the health care system. But if you prefer not to get immunized unless you know for sure that you need it, you can first get the blood test and get a measles shot only if the results—which typically come back within a few days—show that you’re not immune.
Note that certain people can’t receive the measles vaccine, including those with compromised immunity and pregnant women, as well as young infants. These groups are especially at risk for serious complications from measles and depend on others’ being vaccinated to protect them.
For the CDC’s full recommendation and up-to-date information about the measles outbreak, go to cdc.gov/measles.
Also see Do Adults Need Vaccines?