An autopsy has revealed that the recent death of a Washington State woman was due to measles, making her the first person in the U.S. to die of the disease in a dozen years.
The Washington State Department of Health issued a statement Thursday saying the woman most likely was exposed to the disease at a local medical facility during an outbreak in Clallam County, northwest of Seattle. This was the sixth case of measles reported in Clallam County, and the 11th in the state so far this year.
Officials said the woman visited the medical facility at the same time as a person who later developed a rash and was contagious for measles. The woman had several health conditions that contributed to a suppressed immune system. Her cause of death was pneumonia due to measles.
This was the first confirmed measles death reported in the U.S. since 2003.
The measles virus is highly contagious and spreads when an infected person sneezes, coughs or breathes. The virus causes fever, cough, red eyes and runny nose followed by a rash that spreads across the body. The disease can develop within roughly three weeks of exposure to someone with the virus. Measles can be prevented with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.
The Washington State Department of Health stresses the importance of immunizing as many people as possible against the virus to provide a high level of community protection against the disease. Individuals with compromised immune systems are more vulnerable, and can sometimes get sick even when they are vaccinated. Therefore officials say it's important that everyone else gets vaccinated to protect both themselves and those with compromised immune systems.
Earlier this week, California's governor signed a controversial law mandating vaccines for virtually all schoolchildren in the state, and on "CBS This Morning" Friday, medical contributor Dr. David Agus said this case is a good example of why such laws are needed. "The reason we're seeing all this legislation in states like California and Vermont is exactly that -- whether you're getting chemotherapy or some other drug for a disorder, you need your immune system to fight it off. So we don't have a right in our country to get a virus and spread it to someone else when it may kill them. So that's why these laws are very important," Agus said.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all children get two doses of the MMR vaccine: the first at 12 to 15 months of age and the second at four to six. Adults who do not have evidence of immunity against the disease should have at least one measles vaccination.
The latest active case of measles in Washington was reported in April. Health officials reassured the public Thursday that no one who had contact with any of the known cases is any longer at risk for developing measles from those exposures.