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First Measles Death In 12 Years Renews Vaccination Concerns


Now to the first confirmed measles death in the U.S. in 12 years. The Washington State Department of Health announced last week that a woman who died this spring had pneumonia caused by measles. So far this year, 178 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the disease. The news comes during an ongoing debate about vaccinations. California has passed a law making it much more difficult for parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids. JoNel Aleccia is a health reporter with The Seattle Times, and she joins us from KUOW in Seattle to talk about the case in Washington state. And JoNel, tell us about this woman. How did she get the measles?

JONEL ALECCIA: Well, health officials tell us that she was exposed to the measles in January. We had an outbreak in Clallam County, in the northwestern corner of our state. And she went to a health facility at that time, and she was in the center at the same time as someone else who was later confirmed to have measles.

MCEVERS: And had she been vaccinated for measles?

ALECCIA: You know, her vaccination status is uncertain. Her mother tells health officials that she was vaccinated as a child, but they don't have any of the documentation that proves it. And so she's technically classified as kind of an unknown vaccination status. But just after she was exposed, the young woman was tested, and she was found to have antibodies against measles, enough that would've protected a healthy person. But she also had multiple underlying health conditions. And so her immune system was suppressed, and she was vulnerable to the infection anyway.

MCEVERS: And this happened in Clallam County, Wash. That's up at the top of the state. Tell us about it. You know, what's the county like, and what's the vaccination rate like there?

ALECCIA: The vaccination rate in Clallam County was quite a bit lower than other places in the state when we looked earlier this year when this outbreak occurred. After, a kindergartner at a local who was exposed to an unvaccinated man in his 50s - she went to a school with high rates of parents who opted out of vaccination. And so when that little girl was diagnosed with measles, the vaccination rate shot up.

MCEVERS: And so we know places like states like California and Oregon, in some places, have really high rates of non-vaccination. How does Washington state, then, compare to other states nationwide?

ALECCIA: Washington is pretty much in line with the rest of the nation. However, like other places across the U.S., we have pockets of places where people are less likely to be vaccinated, and Clallam County is certainly one of those places.

MCEVERS: You actually reported that after last winter's outbreak at Disneyland - that was linked to Disneyland - vaccination rates actually went up in Washington state. What happened there?

ALECCIA: Well, you know, there was an awful lot of discussion both locally and nationwide about vaccination. And so people just started getting their kids the shots. And we had a big discussion because we had a bill in the legislature that would have done away with the personal belief exemption. It ultimately failed, but the conversation certainly sparked people to look at their own kids' vaccination status.

MCEVERS: And this outbreak that happened in Washington state that affected this little girl and this woman in her 20s who's now died, those were unrelated to the outbreak at Disneyland. Is that right?

ALECCIA: Exactly. We did have two cases in Washington state that were related to Disneyland, but this outbreak wasn't.

MCEVERS: And do you feel like this most recent death is now starting a conversation anew in Washington state?

ALECCIA: Well, you know, we've had such a conversation here for such a long time that I think it's just continuing it. It's a very heated topic here, as elsewhere. And judging by the comments that we've received in response to our story and that the state has received, there are people very strongly entrenched on both sides of the issue.

MCEVERS: Well, JoNel Aleccia, a health reporter with The Seattle Times, thank you so much.

ALECCIA: Oh, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.