Immune Compromised Woman Dies of Measles: Are the Unvaccinated Legally Responsible?

Measles outbreak kills woman in Washington State.



A Washington State woman was the first person to die of measles in the United States since 2003. Unfortunately, she was one of an estimated 10 million Americans whose immune systems are incompetent at fighting off some infectious diseases. The immunocompromised include those who are being treated with chemotherapy for cancer, taking medications for chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis, have received organ transplants, or suffer from HIV/AIDS. Since immunocompromised individuals sometimes do not develop the rash characteristic of the viral disease, her infection was not detected until after her death. The dead woman had apparently been vaccinated against measles, but her immune system was suppressed by medications she was taking for other illnesses.

The woman was a resident of Clallam County in which five cases of measles were reported earlier in the year. The county health department issued a bulletin noting that four of the cases had occurred among individuals who were not vaccinated, and the fifth case occurred in a person who had received one dose of an early less effective version the vaccine in the 1970s. The dead woman was apparently in a medical facility at the same time as one of the infected people, but before that individual had developed the telltale rash.

Both the dead woman and the person vaccinated in the 1970s had taken the responsibility to try to protect themselves and others from the disease. It should be fairly easy to identify the measles carrier(s) who crossed paths with both, especially the dead woman who evidently acquired her infection at a local health clinic. What legal responsibility should the unvaccinated individuals (or more likely their parents who refused inoculation) bear in these cases?

As background, consider this information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

In the decade before the live measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, an average of 549,000 measles cases and 495 measles deaths were reported annually in the United States. However, it is likely that, on average, 3 to 4 million people were infected with measles annually; most cases were not reported. Of the reported cases, approximately 48,000 people were hospitalized from measles and 1,000 people developed chronic disability from acute encephalitis caused by measles annually.

See also Reason's debate, "Should Vaccines Be Mandatory?"

On Friday at 2:30 p.m. at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, I will be debating Dr. Bob Sears on the question: Should Vaccines Be Mandatory? Join us.