Cases of measles are on the rise, and the story of an Israeli flight attendant is reminding us just how dangerous the virus can be. The 43-year-old woman has been in a coma for 10 days after developing a potentially deadly complication of the virus.
The complication, called encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, is a well-known and sometimes fatal complication of measles. The flight attendant, who works for El Al, the Israeli national airline, is said to have been perfectly healthy before contracting measles.
Officials from Israel’s Ministry of Health said it’s unclear whether she contracted the virus in New York, in Israel, or on a flight between the two, adding that they don’t believe she spread the disease to passengers or other crew members aboard the plane, CNN reported. However, they did warn passengers on the attendant’s March 26 El Al airlines flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Tel Aviv to watch out for any symptoms of the disease.
Measles outbreaks in both the U.S. and Israel are on the rise because of low vaccination rates among children. The flight attendant was reportedly vaccinated as a child, but unfortunately, in rare cases, you can still get measles even if you’ve gotten the vaccine. Some outlets have reported that the flight attendant may have been only partially vaccinated, meaning she got one dose of the measles vaccine instead of the recommended two doses.
Robert Murphy, MD, professor of medicine at Northwestern University previously told Health that the severity of every case of measles is different. “It runs the whole spectrum—from just a rash and a sore throat to total, multi-organ failure and death,” Dr. Murphy said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in every 1,000 people to get measles will develop encephalitis, the complication that put the flight attendant in a coma. Dr. Murphy said encephalitis can cause seizures, deafness, and permanent brain damage and disability.
There’s no cure for measles, but medical care can help reduce fever and inflammation and ensure that a patient is getting enough fluids and nutrition. Although deaths from measles in the U.S. are rare, the CDC reports that about one or two in every 1,000 people who get measles will die. The last reported fatal case of measles in the U.S. was in 2015, and the most recent one before that was 12 years prior.
The number one way to prevent measles is to be up-to-date on your vaccinations, Dr. Murphy said. A full course (two shots) of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is about 97% effective at preventing the disease, while one shot is about 93% effective.
Anti-vaccine groups claim that vaccines are somehow related to autism, but that idea has been debunked numerous times by rigorous studies. “The vaccine is extremely effective and extremely safe,” Dr. Murphy said. “There is no association with autism. Literally, none.”
He went on to say, “This is a completely preventable illness, and it’s very frightening that we’re seeing it make a comeback.”
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