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An Israeli Flight Attendant Died of Measles Complications After Traveling from New York City

The 43-year-old mother had worked a route between New York City and Tel Aviv at the height of the U.S. outbreak.

by Emma Ockerman
Aug 14 2019, 2:20pm

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The Israeli woman who contracted measles on a homebound flight from New York back in March — at the height of a sprawling, global outbreak spurred by low vaccination rates — has died, according to Israeli media.

Rotem Amitai, a 43-year-old flight attendant and mother, died Tuesday in a hospital in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv. She had been in a coma for months after being hospitalized with encephalitis, or severe brain swelling, in April, according to the Times of Israel. She was later diagnosed with meningoencephalitis, another measles complication that involves inflammation of both the brain and spinal cord.

Encephalitis is among the rarer side effects of measles, an otherwise preventable respiratory virus that’s extremely contagious and can turn deadly. Most measles deaths arise from such complications, which once killed hundreds of Americans each year back in the mid-20th century, before a cheap and widely available vaccine almost entirely eradicated the disease.

Measles deaths are now relatively rare; Amitai’s death was one of only three measles-related fatalities in Israel in the past 15 years. All three deaths occurred in the past 12 months.

READ: New York to anti-vaxxers: No more religious exemptions for you!

There is also currently a 10-year-old boy hospitalized with measles in Petah Tikva. He’s in a coma and attached to a ventilator, according to the Times of Israel.

Amitai is believed to have come into contact with a measles-infected passenger while working on an El Al flight from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to Tel Aviv on March 26.

She received only one shot against measles in the 1970s, rather than the standard two shots, which can leave a person nearly 97-percent immune from the illness for life, regardless of their surroundings.

“Rotem was a wonderful woman and a devoted mother,” her family said in a statement to the Times of Israel.

READ: The 11 countries were people don't trust vaccines

Of the 1,182 measles cases the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded so far this year, more than 75% have been linked back to New York or New York City, where Orthodox Jewish enclaves have resisted vaccinations for a variety of reasons. Within those enclaves, medical officials often reported infections started with Israeli or Ukranian visitors coming into contact with unvaccinated Americans.

New York City and nearby Rockland County declared public health emergencies over the measles in April, although outbreaks now appear to be waning.

Israel, which is also experiencing its own measles outbreak, logged 4,292 cases between July 2018 and July 2018, according to the Times of Israel.

Meanwhile, the Ukraine has recorded nearly 57,000 measles infections since the beginning of this year. And earlier this week, the World Health Organization announced there had been more measles cases in the first half of 2019 than in any other year since 2006.

READ: We're losing the war against measles

The United States has seen its highest measles case count in 25 years.

Cover: An Israeli EL AL airplane is towed past a United Airlines airplane in front of the skyline of New York City at Newark Liberty Airport on August 3, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)