Via The New Yorker, Michael Specter writes: A Death from Measles. Click through for the full article and many links. Excerpt:
The Washington State Department of Health announced on Thursday the first confirmed measles death in the United States in more than a decade. According to the department, the victim was a twenty-year-old woman, who “probably became infected after exposure at a local medical clinic during a recent measles outbreak” in the county where she lived.
Because the woman displayed none of the classic symptoms of measles, such as a rash, the discovery that she had died from the disease was not made until the medical examiner conducted an autopsy. Biologically, at least, there is nothing surprising about this news. The Centers for Disease Control have said that others have “probably died” of measles during the past decade, although their cases were never confirmed.
In this case, the victim suffered from a number of health problems and was being treated with medicine that is known to weaken the immune system and make it easier for viruses such as measles to attack.
Measles, the world’s most contagious virus, was all but eradicated in the United States fifteen years ago, and it shouldn’t make anybody sick, let alone cause deaths. But in 1998, a British physician named Andrew Wakefield published an article in the medical journal The Lancet concluding that there was a connection between the childhood measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism. Wakefield’s results have never been replicated, throughout a wide variety of studies, several of them involving thousands of children, and an investigation by the British General Medical Council found that Wakefield had violated ethics rules and shown “callous disregard” for the pain of children in his research. In 2010, The Lancet retracted the article, and Wakefield became a pariah in the medical world. Nonetheless, the paper had set off a wave of fear of vaccinations, first in England and then throughout the Western world, which has never fully subsided.
One of the central purposes of universal vaccination is to provide “herd immunity” to the most vulnerable segments of the population—infants, for example, and those receiving drug treatment for cancer and other diseases that compromise the immune system. If you are sick and unable to get vaccinated, the herd around you, in theory, should provide protection.
Once the vaccine rate falls much below ninety per cent, however, herd immunity disappears. Vaccine rates are particularly low in central Washington, where the measles death occurred, as they are in many other parts of the state.