Measles exposure at Newark Airport reignites vaccination concerns

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Someone sick with measles got off a flight arriving from Vienna at Terminal B earlier this month and walked through Newark Liberty International Airport. Their every cough, sneeze and exhaled breath left a cloud of virus, a contrail of contagion, capable of infecting nine out of 10 people who weren’t already immune.

“It doesn’t concern me because I am vaccinated. So I feel like if you’re vaccinated, then being around people who are unvaccinated wouldn’t affect people like me,” said Jersey City resident Maggie Joseph.

New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal put out an alert about the exposure at Terminal B, noting that it happened on May 8 between 2 and 6 p.m. and that anyone exposed could develop measles symptoms like a rash, high fever, runny nose and cough as late as Wednesday. It was the second measles alert generated by an infected traveler at Newark Airport this month.

“Because measles is one of the most contagious diseases that we know of, and because it can cause very serious complications, we need to publicize every public exposure location — especially ones that experience high traffic,” Elnahal said. “We have folks not only coming from abroad who have measles now, but an unprecedented number of individuals even within the United States that have had measles within the last year. And so all access points for transportation are at risk — especially airports that have a lot of traffic like Newark Airport.”

As of May 22 this year, New Jersey’s recorded 14 measles cases, 12 in Ocean County. The U.S. logged 940 as of May 24, with 60 new cases just last week. It’s the worst outbreak in a quarter century. Despite a public health awareness campaign, 5.4% of New Jersey students did not meet vaccination requirements last year and that’s trending up from 4.7% four years prior.

Measles is so contagious that it requires 90 to 95% of the population to be vaccinated in order to achieve what health officials call herd immunity against a disease that can be fatal in two out of 1,000 cases.

“Unfortunately New Jersey has a high rate of unvaccinated individuals, especially in certain communities. So now is the time to be vigilant and to be concerned,” Elnahal said.

Some states have gotten so concerned they’ve passed more stringent laws requiring vaccinations and stripping away exemptions. New Jersey’s got pending legislation to let teens as young as 14 get immunized for measles and other infectious diseases even if their parents object.

Bill sponsor Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle noted, “If signed into law, this would ensure that minors of a certain age would have autonomy over their bodies and their health.”

But New Jersey’s also home to a vocal contingent of so-called anti-vaxxers who consider it a personal right to forego vaccinations. They’ve
opposed bills to remove exemptions from New Jersey vaccination regulations.

Opponents of Vaineri Huttle’s bill call it ridiculous. They say teens are impulsive and they bow to peer pressure. They vow they’ll fight this measure and any other that compels them to vaccinate against their wishes.