Measles and cancer: What you should know

February 12, 2015 | by Tami Dennis

With measles, what starts at a theme park in California definitely doesn’t stay at a theme park in California. Since the beginning of the current measles outbreak – traced to an initial exposure at Disneyland or Disney California Adventure during December – more than 100 people have been diagnosed with a disease wrongly considered to have been vanquished.

Measles and cancer Cancer patients can't be vaccinated against the measles virus (depicted in illustration). They must rely on members of their community to keep them safe.

The all-but-forgotten hallmark of childhood is now rippling across the country – with people from New York to Washington, Arizona to Georgia, affected. Beyond fever, cough, red eyes, runny nose and the signature red rash, the disease can lead to ear infections, diarrhea and, in more severe cases, pneumonia, encephalitis and death. One or two of every 1,000 children who develop the disease die from it.

To say the disease is highly contagious would be an understatement. Every new diagnosis makes clear what can happen in a population largely unexposed to measles, with a spotty vaccination record against it. But much remains unknown, including how worried cancer patients should be.

Bernard Tegtmeier, Ph.D., a clinical microbiologist and an expert in the spread of infectious diseases, offered some perspective in this interview.

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Are cancer patients at greater risk than the general population should they contract measles?

“We didn’t have many of today's modern cancer therapies when measles was more prevalent, but observations from the few outbreaks and cases that have occurred in this country in the last 30 to 40 years suggest that cancer patients, particularly those with hematologic malignancies, and other immunologically compromised patients (e.g., HIV patients) are at a higher risk of developing severe measles and its complications.”

What precautions can cancer patients take for a disease that’s so contagious and largely airborne?

“Cancer patients should avoid places where there are large crowds of people during an an ongoing outbreak until the risk of measles has passed. Regularly using hand sanitizer is important for cancer patients and those caring for them."

If you don’t know if you’ve been vaccinated or had the disease, should you avoid visiting cancer patients in case you’ve been exposed and don’t know it?

"The most important thing we can do to protect our patients with low immunity is to make sure that we and our children are immunized against measles, so that we cannot spread the illness. If we have not been immunized and we have been exposed to someone with known or suspected measles, we should refrain from visiting cancer patients and other immunologically compromised individuals.”

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The Los Angeles Times' Robin Abcarian recently shared the story of 6-year-old Rhett, a former leukemia patient who's become the "angelic public face of the pro-vaccination movement in California." The drugs used to treat his disease have weakened his immune system, making vaccination for him out of the question. Instead, his safety from measles depends on the vaccination of children and adults who have no reason to fear the vaccine.

Unfortunately for Rhett and other cancer patients, herd immunity doesn’t work if the herd isn’t fully vaccinated.

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Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion at City of Hope by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.

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