On July 2, 2015, the Washington State Department of Health issued a press release titled, “Measles led to death of Clallam Co. woman; first in US in a dozen years.” Within hours, the release began to be picked up by numerous media sources, including ABC News, BuzzFeed News, CBS News, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, NBC News, Reuters, Slate, the Detroit Free Press, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, The Verge, the Washington Examiner, and The Washington Post.
(Don’t forget to note the lead-off to each story—those scary microscope images of the measles virus. There’s the peachy pink one that looks like rivers draining into a lake, and then there’s the orange one with the big purple blob. They’re meant for effect… you know, to set the tone.)
Be assured that this is just the tip of iceberg. The story will continue going viral for some time, and it will spark yet another national debate about the need for mandatory vaccinations for both children and even adults.
On June 29, California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed the controversial SB 277 bill into law mandating all students attending public and private schools (as well as daycare centers) in his state to be fully vaccinated. No more personal and religious exemptions. Three days later, the headlines read, “Washington State Woman Dies of Measles,” or “Washington Woman Is First US Measles Death In More Than A Decade,” or “Twelve Years Later, Measles has Returned, Causing Death of One,” or “Woman 1st American to die of measles since 2003,” or “Woman in Washington died from measles, becoming first U.S. death from disease in 12 years,” or “Washington: Measles Kills Woman.”
Sounds pretty darn bad, doesn’t it? The fear machine has been properly oiled, fueled up, and switched on. Now the wonderfully unbiased, independent, and thoroughly professional and astute U.S. media can be counted on to spread the story that isn’t a story at all. It’s not a story because there are almost no facts from which to develop a newsworthy story.
Let’s take a look at the press release which generated all these articles, headlines. “Measles led to death of Clallam Co. woman; first in US in a dozen years.” Sounds pretty definitive. So let’s look at the structure of the release. Eight paragraphs. But let’s not count the last one, because it reads:
The Department of Health website (doh.wa.gov) is your source for a healthy dose of information. Also, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
Nothing newsworthy there. So we’re down to seven paragraphs. Let’s look at the seventh one. It reads:
The last confirmed measles death in the United States was reported in 2003. More information about measles nationwide is available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.
Nothing newsworthy there either. Let’s look at the third, fourth and fifth ones. They read:
This tragic situation illustrates the importance of immunizing as many people as possible to provide a high level of community protection against measles. People with compromised immune systems often cannot be vaccinated against measles. Even when vaccinated, they may not have a good immune response when exposed to disease; they may be especially vulnerable to disease outbreaks. Public health officials recommend that everyone who is eligible for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine get vaccinated so they can help protect themselves, their families, and the vulnerable people in their community.
Measles is highly contagious even before the rash starts, and is easily spread when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes. If you’re not protected, you can get measles just by walking into a room where someone with the disease has been in the past couple of hours.
Children should be vaccinated with two doses of MMR vaccine, with the first dose between 12 and 15 months and the second at four-to-six years. Adults born after 1956 should have at least one measles vaccination; some people need two. The state Department of Health immunization program has online information about measles and measles vaccine.
Hardly newsworthy. So that leaves us with the opening paragraph, the second one, and the sixth. The opening and the second read as follows:
The death of a Clallam County woman this spring was due to an undetected measles infection that was discovered at autopsy.
The woman was most likely exposed to measles at a local medical facility during a recent outbreak in Clallam County. She was there at the same time as a person who later developed a rash and was contagious for measles. The woman had several other health conditions and was on medications that contributed to a suppressed immune system. She didn’t have some of the common symptoms of measles such as a rash, so the infection wasn’t discovered until after her death. The cause of death was pneumonia due to measles.
The sixth one goes like this:
The measles diagnosis for the Clallam County woman brings the state’s case count to 11, and is the sixth in Clallam County for the year. The last active case of measles in Washington this year was reported in late April. Within about three weeks of exposure to someone with measles, it’s possible to develop the disease. Since more than three weeks has already passed since the last active measles case, no one who had contact with one of the known cases is any longer at risk for developing measles from those exposures.
The paragraph doesn’t deal with this particular story directly, but it does provide some information to help give some context to the story. It notes, for example, that this is the sixth case of measles in Clallam County this year, and that the last case was reported in April.
So any average reporter should’ve looked at the press release and thought, “Hmm, not much here with which to work.” First thing he or she should might’ve done is pick up the phone and dialed (360) 236-4076 and asked to speak to Don Moyer, the contact person noted on the release. The conversation may have gone something like this:
Reporter: Hey Don, can you tell me the name of this woman who died?
Don: Sorry, can’t disclose that.
Reporter: Well, could you tell me how old she was?
Don: Sorry, no.
Reporter: Hmm, well can you tell me anything about the other health conditions she was suffering from?
Don: No, not at liberty to tell you that.
Reporter: What about the medications, the drugs she was taking. You know, the ones that contributed to suppressing her immune system?
Don: Nope, sorry.
Reporter: Don, had the woman been vaccinated?
Don: Not sure about that.
Reporter: So she could’ve been vaccinated, and if she had been vaccinated recently then it’s possible the infection found in her body could’ve come from the measles vaccine itself, right?
Don: Uh, what?
Reporter: Oh… forget it.
Any average reporter should’ve then gone to his or her editor and said, “Sorry boss, no story there.” A good reporter, however, would’ve kept digging and eventually may have been able to piece together some sort of newsworthy story. The reporter would have, for example, quickly found out from reading a piece in The Seattle Times that the woman was in her 20s.
The good reporter would have found out from reading the news of Clallam County over the past few months that the previous case—the fifth—of measles in that county involved a man who had been vaccinated against the disease. The other four measles cases in the county in February involved people who had not been vaccinated. These included a 14-year old boy (the fourth case) and his 5-year old sister (the second case), and two men ages 43 (the third case) and 52 (the first case). Two of the individuals involved in the first four cases are apparently related to the man in the fifth case.
According to Clallam health officials, both the fourth and fifth case individuals were quarantined during their infectious period, so they could not have spread the disease.
All five cases occurred at the same time there was so much national commotion over the outbreak of measles at Disneyland… which explains why the Clallam County Health and Human Services officials started issuing public health advisories urging people to get free shots of the measles vaccine (MMR) at local clinics.
It’s possible that the 20-some year old woman (the sixth case) caught the measles virus from one of the other five people (although we know that at least two of those individuals had been quarantined). But it is also possible that the woman, who never actually developed measles symptoms, simply responded to local health advisories and drove over to a clinic and got her MMR shot, and that what the autopsy found was traces of the vaccine strain measles virus in her system. Remember, MMR is an attenuated (weakened) live virus vaccine, and those who get live virus vaccines can be infected with it.
Now that’s a story. Heck, anyone can copy a press release.
Update: The Associated Press reported on July 3 that the Clallan County woman had received the measles vaccine as a child. The AP report quotes Dr. Jeanette Stehr-Green, the Clallam County health officer, as saying that “the woman had been vaccinated as a child, but because she had other health problems and was taking medications that interfered with her response to an infection, she was not protected.”