For the first time since 2003, a measles infection led to the death of someone in the United States. On July 2, 2015, the Washington State Department of Health issued an announcement saying a woman’s death was caused by pneumonia due to an undetected measles infection. The woman had several other health conditions and was on medications that caused her immune system to be suppressed.
The woman is believed to have been exposed at a medical facility she was at for treatment when a person infectious with measles was at the same facility. Because the woman did not have some of the common symptoms associated with measles, like a rash, the infection wasn’t discovered until autopsy.
The tragic event highlights the importance of herd immunity, which helps protect immune compromised patients with a community of vaccinated individuals which lessens the ability of an infectious disease to circulate.
By the end of June 2015, more than 175 cases of measles have been diagnosed in the U.S. This is more than the total number of cases during the entire year of 2012 and comes on the heels of a year (2014) during which more cases of measles were diagnosed in the U.S. than in any other year in two decades (644 total, 23 outbreaks).
Measles is a highly contagious respiratory virus that can cause symptoms such as:
- Fever that gradually rises to 103-105⁰F.
- Runny nose.
- Loss of appetite.
- Pink eye or red, watery eyes (conjunctivitis).
- Raised, blush-white spots inside the mouth.
- Rash consisting of red spots raised in the middle that begins at the hairline and moves to the face and neck before descending downward and outward over the body.
Measles spreads so easily because it’s a virus that lives in tiny respiratory droplets released into the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Those droplets hang in the air and can infect others for up to two hours after the infected person has left the area. Susceptible people either breathe in the droplets, or touch an infected surface and then put their hand(s) in their mouth or nose. An example of how contagious measles is can be seen in the below diagram from the free mobile app, Vaccines on the Go: What You Should Know:
Although the symptoms typically last about six days, an infected person is contagious several days before symptoms begin and for several days thereafter, typically until the telltale rash goes away. Because symptoms may take seven to 21 days after exposure to appear, anyone who is not immune and has potentially been exposed may need to be quarantined for up to three weeks to help slow the spread of the virus in the community. About 3 out of every 10 people who get measles will develop complications, which can include: ear infection, pneumonia, swelling of the brain (encephalitis), subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE, a rare, progressive and fatal neurological disorder with onset several to 20 years after initial infection with measles), hemorrhagic measles (including seizures, delirium, difficulty breathing and bleeding under the skin), clotting disorder and death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one person infected with measles typically infects 12 to 18 others who are susceptible; whereas, a person infected with mumps typically infects four to seven susceptible people; a person with influenza commonly infects one to four susceptible people; and a person infected with Ebola typically infects one to two susceptible people.
Vaccination with two doses of the MMR vaccine is the best way to be protected. One dose of the vaccine — recommended to be given between 12 to 15 months of age — will protect about 95 out of every 100 people. A second dose — recommended to be given between 4 and 6 years of age — increases that number to about 99 of every 100 people.
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