Measles kills first patient in 12 years


The USA has suffered its first measles death in 12 years, according to Washington state health officials.

The woman’s measles was undetected and confirmed only through an autopsy, according to the Washington State Department of Health. The woman’s name was not released, but officials said she lived in Clallam County.

The woman was probably exposed to measles at a medical facility during a measles outbreak this spring, according to the health department. She was at the hospital at the same time as a patient who later developed a rash and was diagnosed with measles. Patients with measles can spread the virus even before showing symptoms.

The woman, who died of pneumonia, had other health conditions and was taking medications that suppressed her immune system, the health department said.

Pneumonia is one of several serious common complications of measles and the most common cause of death from the virus, said William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. Measles kills one or two children out of every 1,000 infected, according to the CDC.

It’s not surprising that the woman had no obvious measles symptoms; people with compromised immune systems often don’t develop a rash when infected with the virus, said Paul Offit, chief of infectious disease at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The woman’s death was a preventable, but predictable, consequence of falling vaccination rates, said Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development in Houston.

Measles has surged back in recent years as groups of like-minded parents have opted against fully vaccinating their children. Last year, 644 people contracted the virus.

A measles outbreak that began at Disneyland over the Christmas holidays in December spread across the country, including to Washington state.

So far this year, 178 people have been diagnosed with measles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some states have reacted to the outbreaks by passing laws to require more children to be vaccinated. Both California and Vermont this year repealed exemptions that allowed unvaccinated children to attend school because of their parents’ personal beliefs.

Communities need to vaccinate at least 92% of children to prevent outbreaks, said Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

In Washington state in 2013-2014, one-third of the 1,634 schools with kindergartens had vaccination levels for kindergartners under 90%.

People with compromised immune systems are at high risk from measles. They often can’t be vaccinated. Or, if they are vaccinated, their bodies don’t respond in a way that protects them from disease, according to the Washington state health department.

There are hundreds of thousands of these patients in the USA, and they depend on others around them to get vaccines, Offit said.

“It’s not your right to catch and transmit a potentially fatal infection,” Offit said.

By keeping overall levels of measles low, vaccinated people create a wall of protection that prevents disease among vulnerable people, including babies too young to have received their first shots, said William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

“We are responsible not only for our health but for the health of those around us,” Schaffner said. “The only way we can protect them from these disease is if we are vaccinated.”

Measles is one of the most contagious viruses and spreads easily when infected people breathe, cough or sneeze. People who aren’t protected — because they haven’t had measles or a vaccine — can contract the virus even two hours after an infectious person leaves the room.

The last confirmed measles death in the United States was reported in 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These are communicable diseases,” Schaffner said. “They don’t just happen to me. They can be spread to others, often unknowingly so.”

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Dan Mullin is an active writer and editor for the Pluto Daily who covered the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. Mullin attended the Wake Forest School of Medicine before leaving to pursue his lifelong science goal of allowing humans to live forever via a computer/brain transfer.