A young woman in Washington State has died from complications stemming from the measles, according to health officials — which marks the United States’ first confirmed measles death in more than a decade. The last deaths that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially linked to the disease were recorded back in 2003.
The woman, who is not being identified in the press, was dealing with other health issues that required her to take drugs to suppress her immune system. Although she had previously been vaccinated against measles, the immune suppression allowed her to become infected anyway after she was exposed to the disease at a medical facility. The woman’s infection led to a case of pneumonia, which was ultimately the cause of her death.
“As we see more measles cases, we run the risk of a fatality,” Anne Schuchat, the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, told the Associated Press this week. “We hope to see the day when no one dies from measles.”
Measles was virtually eradicated from the United States back in 2000; however, thanks in part to small pockets of people who are refusing to vaccinate, it’s been resurging in recent years. There have been nearly 180 measles cases so far in 2015, largely driven by a massive outbreak that spread quickly among Americans who visited a Disneyland theme park in January.
Anti-vaccine sentiments stem from an unscientific belief that government-recommended immunizations are harmful to children and may even cause autism. After the Disneyland measles outbreak, as California lawmakers moved quickly to tighten the vaccination requirements in their state, they provoked backlash from some parents — along with celebrities like Jim Carrey — who argued that the government was infringing on parents’ personal choices.
People who oppose government requirements for vaccination often say that no one ever dies from contracting the measles in the United States. Indeed, measles deaths are rare, and most people who get the disease recover within a week or two.
However, it’s not accurate to say that measles is never fatal. There have been other deaths linked to measles complications, even if federal health officials haven’t been able to officially “confirm” measles as the cause of death.
There have been at least 11 measles-related deaths since 2000, according to data compiled by pediatrics expert Dr. Vincent Iannelli. Some of the CDC’s preliminary data from 2008 and 2009 also indicated the measles as a cause of death in two cases. Plus, children who develop a condition called “subacute sclerosing panencephalitis” — a serious complication stemming from measles — may die from the disease years later.
The discrepancy arises from the way that deaths are recorded and confirmed. While death certificates may list measles as a cause of death, the CDC can’t necessarily confirm that without additional information from a lab.
Regardless of the official numbers, health experts don’t mince words about the potentially serious effects of measles. The CDC refers to it as a disease that “can be a serious in all age groups,” and the American Academy of Pediatrics calls it “one of the most highly communicable of all infectious diseases.” During California’s recent outbreak — which was directly linked to low rates of vaccination falling well below the threshold needed to achieve herd immunity — officials stressed that “measles is not a trivial illness” and urged parents to keep their children safe by vaccinating them against the disease.
While most healthy adults can fight off a measles infection, anyone with a compromised immune system is in much more danger. In that sense, the Americans who avoid vaccination are making a choice that could affect sick people who are less fortunate than they are.
“As we have been telling people, we need to achieve very high rates of measles vaccination to protect the most vulnerable: babies and people who are immunosuppressed,” the CDC’s Schuchat told National Geographic. “While measles can be deadly in anybody, it is more likely to cause this kind of complication in people with immune-suppressing conditions.”