Deanna's Discoveries: The measles outbreak puts cancer patients at risk

June 07, 2019 07:02 PM

NEW YORK (WHEC) -- The number of measles cases in this country has hit a 25-year high, with the most cases reported in New York state.

When you're a cancer patient with a compromised immune system, those numbers can make you pretty nervous. In this edition of Deanna's Discoveries, I take a look at whether cancer patients and others with compromised immune systems should consider getting vaccinated.

As chemotherapy kills the cancer, it kills healthy cells too, cells that support the immune system. This means that the current measles outbreak poses a real threat to me and others undergoing cancer treatment.

"If you're already battling with a serious illness and your immune system might be compromised either from the illness or the treatment, your risk of having a more serious case of measles is increased," said Dr. Paul Graman, an infectious disease specialist at University of Rochester Medical Center.

He says a serious case of measles can lead to encephalitis, permanent disability and even death. And I, like so many middle-aged cancer patients, don't have access to my childhood vaccination records. I was likely vaccinated in the late 60s.

"During the 1960s, before 1968, some people would have received a vaccine that was not very effective."

That's because from 1963 to 1967 almost a million Americans were given a vaccine with the killed virus.

That vaccine did not work. So in 1968, the CDC mandated that Americans get an effective vaccine with the live virus. I was likely vaccinated when I was about 12 months old, around 1969. But I can't be sure. My oncologist, Dr. Alissa Huston says current guidelines indicate I'm at high risk.

"Not only is it looking at your previous history and some of your previous treatments years ago, but it's also related to what you do on a general basis, your interaction with people, your exposure risk," she said.

She was referencing the fact that I'm a four-time cancer patient and have been exposed to numerous chemotherapy agents that could have compromised my immunity. My job as a journalist also requires that I interact with large crowds and am exposed to a greater number of people than perhaps those in other professions.

So I want a measles vaccination, but I can't get one.

"You have to wait at least three months after finishing chemotherapy based upon again national published guidelines," said Dr. Huston.

But there is another option for cancer patients who are in active treatment and unsure about their measles immunity.

"You can have a blood test that will show whether you are immune to the measles, and can answer the question quite definitively," said Dr. Graman.

It's a blood test that measures whether you have measles antibodies making you immune to the virus. That test is first on my "to do list".

So, your next question is likely whether the test is covered by insurance.

I called my insurer, United Healthcare, and under my plan, 100 percent of the cost of the test is covered.

First, talk to your doctor about his or her recommendations. Then call your insurer to see if the vaccine or the measles antibody test is covered. You'll need the CPT / billing codes in order to get pricing.

The CPT code usually used for the vaccine is 90710.  The CPT code used for the measles antibody test is 86765.


Deanna Dewberry

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