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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Washington State Woman Is First Measles Death in U.S. in 12 Years

By Phil Plait

In Clallam County, Washington, a woman has died of complications from measles. This is the first U.S. death from measles since 2003.

Clallam County had an outbreak of measles earlier this year, when five people were diagnosed with the disease. The woman who died brings this to a total of six.

She likely contracted measles when she visited a health facility; a person who was later identified as having measles was there at the same time. The woman who died was apparently taking a series of medications that lowered her immune system’s ability to fight off disease. Although she didn’t present a rash or other obvious external symptoms, she died of pneumonia caused by the measles infection.

Vaccination rates in that area of Washington are lower than they should be. We—and I do mean “we”—need the public to have as high a rate of vaccination as possible, to ensure herd immunity, so that the bacteria and viruses that can cause such illness and death have as few places to hide as we can muster. When rates drop, we get outbreaks, like the one in Disneyland that sickened so many and spread the highly contagious disease to many parts of the country.

One person who came down with measles in the Clallam outbreak had been inoculated, but it was decades ago, when the shot was less effective. It’s important to make sure your immunizations are up-to-date.

This death comes on the heels of California making it harder for parents to opt out of vaccinating their school-age children; only a medical exemption will be accepted (before, they also allowed religious and personal reasons). I’m very happy this law passed. I’ll note that Washington state, where the woman died, still allows personal exemptions. Hopefully their legislature will rethink that policy.

It also comes right after a huge and awful backlash against the new California law by the anti-vax crowd, including actor Jim Carrey, who tweeted a series of foolish and blatantly incorrect statements about vaccines. He brought up the zombie ideas of mercury poisoning (a non-issue) and conspiratorial Big Pharma nonsense.

Let me be very, very clear: Anti-vax rhetoric like that makes people scared to get vaccinated. Rates drop, herd immunity drops, outbreaks occur, and people get sick. Some die. This is a direct, step-by-step chain.

No one is forcing you to get vaccinated. If you want your children to attend school in California, then yes, you have to get them vaccinated unless there’s a pressing medical reason. But no one is coming to your door, holding you down, and injecting you with anything. You still have a choice. That choice boils down to this: If you want to rely on public services, then you have to support those services. One method of support is making sure you have minimized the risk of your child giving other children dangerous infectious diseases.

And it’s not just children. It’s elderly people who are at risk, too, and people—like the woman who died in Washington—who are immunocompromised. I have family members in both these categories, which is why my entire family is up-to-date on our vaccinations.

When you get vaccinated, you are helping not just yourself, but also many, many people around you of all ages. Read up about measles, and what you need to do. Ask your board-certified doctor and see if you need to be vaccinated (or need to get your booster). If they recommend it, then listen to them.

Read more of Slate’s vaccines coverage.

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