Flight Attendant Mom of 3 Dies 5 Months After Contracting Measles at Work

Photo of Rotem Amitai

For the last year, the US has entered what health officials have declared to be a "measles epidemic," as vaccination rates have declined and the once-cured disease has spread throughout pockets of the country. It's also reignited a fierce debate about the importance of vaccines between the pro-vaccine community and anti-vaxxers, who seem to have become more vocal than ever about their right to abstain from immunizations. But this week, the death of Rotem Amitai -- a 43-year-old flight attendant and mother of three from Israel -- has health officials once again reminding the public about just how serious the spread of the virus can be.

  • According to People, Amitai worked for El Al Airlines, and was on a flight from New York's JFK International Airport in March when she fell ill.

    The flight attendant was bound for her home country of Israel at the time when she began to show symptoms of encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain caused by the disease. Although doctors still cannot confirm whether she contracted the virus on the flight or shortly prior, Amitai was hospitalized just days afterward and fell into a deep coma.

    She remained there for five months, until she sadly lost her battle on Tuesday.

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  • Amitai's mother later confirmed that she had received the vaccine as a small child but only one dosage, as was typical in the 1970s.

    Today, children in Israel are required to receive two dosages of the vaccine -- one at 12 months and another once they reach first grade. Sadly, despite being healthy and relatively young, Amitai's childhood dosage was not enough to protect her against the deadly virus.

  • Amitai's family, which includes three young children, are mourning her loss, which came far too early.

    "Rotem was a wonderful woman and a devoted mother," her family said in a statement obtained by CNN. "We are grieving and mourning her passing before her time."

    El Al Airlines also issued a statement this week, offering its condolences to the family and assuring the public that the necessary steps are being taken to protect against future incidents of this kind.

    "The company is bowing its head over the death of a member of El Al’s aircrew,” a representative for El Al told the Jewish Press. “The company will continue to act on the matter in accordance with the health ministry’s guidelines.

    “Once the case became known, the company acted to vaccinate the company’s aircrews,” the representative added. “The company shares the deep grief of the family and will continue to accompany the family.”

  • Around the world, news of the young mother's death sparked reactions across social media.

    "Please vaccinate your children," tweeted one woman. "And maintain your own vaccinations with booster shots when needed."

    "So avoidable," added another.

    "This is beyond tragic," one man tweeted. "While we don't know how or where she contracted the disease, we have a social responsibility to discuss the importance of vaccines, the dangers presented when people don't get them, and the real possibility that a one time inoculation might not be enough."

    Of course, there were plenty of anti-vaxxers who rolled their eyes at the news, claiming the headlines and rhetoric surrounding the death only served to suit some kind of an agenda.

    "Pushing for more vaccines," tweeted one woman, followed by several eye-roll emojis.

    Meanwhile, others took the time to spread more damaging misinformation.

    "You know what else can cause encephalitis, the measles vaccine," another person added. "There are 100x more deaths from the vaccine than the disease." (For the record: There aren't.)

  • At the end of the day, Amitai's tragic story is a sad reminder of just how deadly measles truly is.

    According to the World Health Organization, more than 360,000 people have contracted measles this year alone worldwide. And even though cases aren't always fatal, in 2017 measles led to 110,000 deaths globally -- and sadly, most of those deaths were of children younger than 5.

    To put it in perspective nationally, more than 1,100 cases of measles have been reported in the US this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 75 percent of those cases have been in New York, where outbreaks have occurred in Rockland County and New York City. This is significant because the United States declared measles eradicated back in 2000, but the way things stand now, that's no longer the case.

    "We have the reintroduction of a serious viral infection with a population that's withholding the vaccine from their children, and now it's spreading beyond that population," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University and an adviser on vaccines to the CDC, told CNN.

    If you're worried about protecting you or your child against the spread of the virus, WHO strongly urges you to make sure vaccinations are up to date and that you receive any new immunizations at least four to six days prior to traveling.