A woman in Washington state died from measles in the spring — the first measles death in the U.S. since 2003 and the first in the state since 1990, health officials said Thursday.
The woman lacked some of the measles' common symptoms, such as a rash, so the infection was not discovered until an autopsy, Washington State Department of Health spokesman Donn Moyer said.
This is the 11th case of measles in Washington state this year, Moyer said. It follows an outbreak of measles at Disneyland in California late last year, which sparked an intense debate around America about mandating vaccinations for schoolchildren, which some parents oppose. That outbreak eventually sickened more than 140 people across the country and in Mexico and Canada. No deaths resulted from that outbreak.
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Measles is highly contagious and spreads when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. However, dying from it is extremely rare, Moyer said.
Officials didn't say whether the woman was vaccinated, but they did note she had a compromised immune system. They withheld her age to protect her identity but said she was not elderly.
The woman was hospitalized for several health conditions in the spring at a facility in Clallam County, which covers the northern part of the Olympic Peninsula. She was there at the same time as a person who later developed a rash and was contagious for measles, Moyer said. That's when the woman most likely was exposed.
She was on medications that contributed to her weakened immune system, he said.
An autopsy concluded the cause of death was pneumonia due to measles.
"This tragic situation illustrates the importance of immunizing as many people as possible to provide a high level of community protection against measles," Moyer said. "People with compromised immune systems cannot be vaccinated against measles. Even when vaccinated, they may not have a good immune response when exposed to disease; they may be especially vulnerable to disease outbreaks."
The last active case of measles in Washington was reported in late April.
The prompt responses by heath care workers across the country have helped stop the measles' spread, but it continues to be imported into the U.S., said Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have been 178 cases in the country so far this year.
Schuchat said the best protection is immunization.
"It's very sad that we have a death from measles in the U.S.," she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "We really rely on people who can be vaccinated to protect those for whom vaccine protection isn't available," such as the woman with a depressed immune system.
It's possible to develop measles within three weeks of exposure. Since three weeks have passed since the last measles case, no one who had contact with the known cases is at risk, Moyer said.
This case was not related to the measles outbreak at Disneyland, which started in December and sickened more than 140 people across the country and in Mexico and Canada, Moyer said. No deaths resulted from that outbreak.