What Every Person with Cancer Should Know about the 2019 Measles Outbreak

woman talking with her doctor

If you were vaccinated against measles as a child and are not undergoing a bone marrow or stem cell transplant, you don’t need to be revaccinated after cancer treatment.

Nearly 20 years ago, public health officials declared that measles had been eliminated in the United States. Today, however, the illness is resurging. From January to early May 2019, there have been more than 750 cases of the disease documented across 23 states, including New York. However, the vast majority of cases in this outbreak have occurred in unvaccinated children.

The MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, and rubella) is a routine childhood vaccination that can prevent people from ever getting measles, with a few exceptions. You’re also protected for life if you had measles as a child.

For people with cancer who have not been vaccinated, measles can pose an especially serious threat. MSK’s Mini Kamboj, Chief Medical Epidemiologist, Infection Control, explains the reasons why and how these people can take precautions to stay safe.

Mini Kamboj

Mini Kamboj

Why is measles especially dangerous for people with cancer?

The risk of a complication from measles is higher for a person undergoing cancer treatment compared with someone who has a healthy immune system. The most dreaded complications seen in severely immunocompromised patients are if the disease spreads to the brain (encephalitis) or the lungs (pneumonitis).

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Can a person with cancer get vaccinated for measles?

Simply put, no. People actively undergoing chemotherapy cannot get the vaccine. MMR is a live vaccine, which means that it creates a very mild form of the measles infection in the body in order to induce immunity. In those with a weakened immune system, such as someone undergoing cancer therapy, that mild infection could become severe.

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If a person was vaccinated for measles before getting cancer, should he or she get revaccinated after cancer treatment?

The majority of vaccinated people who go through cancer treatment do not need to get revaccinated. If they’re not sure if they ever received the vaccine and they want to consider it now, they should talk to their doctor. They may be eligible to receive the vaccine if they are no longer on active therapy.

However, people who undergo bone marrow or stem cell transplants need to get revaccinated because they lose immunity to vaccines they previously received. Usually for people who have undergone transplant, it is recommended they get the MMR vaccine two years after transplant if otherwise eligible.

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How can people who can’t be vaccinated protect themselves?

The most important preventative measure is to ensure that all healthy people around you — your family, spouse, kids — are up to date on their vaccinations. This prevents them from getting sick from measles and spreading the disease to others around them who have weakened immune systems. It’s a misconception that if someone is undergoing cancer treatment, no one in the household can get the MMR vaccine. That is not true.

For a person who has never had the MMR vaccine or is not immune to measles, there are other preventive strategies we can offer, such as treatment with specialized medicine.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Measles

Learn about how the measles spreads, symptoms, and more.

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Do people with cancer have different measles symptoms?

The main symptoms are the same. Measles commonly presents with fever, cough, rash, and red eyes.

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What is MSK doing to keep patients safe from measles?

MSK is screening current patients and visitors to the Pediatric Unit and Urgent Care Center for signs and symptoms of measles. We’re asking people if they’ve had recent contact with someone who had measles. We have also put together a question-and-answer document that we are distributing to patients and visitors. MSK is dedicated to protecting our patients and we are taking the necessary steps to keep them safe.

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Commenting is disabled for this blog post.

I am 60 yrs old and have never had cancers. I have been vaccinated as a child. When delivering each of my children, I was tested and showed no immunity against the measles. Each time I was revaccinated. My dr recently checked. I still show no immunity. Is this common? And is there anything I can take to get me immune? Thank you!

Dear Candice, we recommend that you speak with your doctor about this. Thank you for your comment.

You mentioned specialized treatment/meds but didn't give information. My daughter did not have a transplant but has lost her immunity.
I live near a town where an outbreak has happened. I know the precautions but would like to know about the medicine. Thank you

Dear Stephanie, the treatment recommended for nonimmune individuals exposed to a case of measles is called intravenous immunoglobulin. We recommend you discuss this with your daughter’s doctors. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to both of you.

I got breast cancer in January 2018. I had a lumpectomy and 6 weeks of radiation that finished in June 2018. No chemo. Is it ok to get a measles vaccine now?

Dear Ashlyn, we recommend you discuss this with your doctor or another healthcare provider who is familiar with your full medical history. Thank you for your comment and best wishes to you.