Thirty-six people have already contracted measles this month and 11 more were suspected to have the virus, as of Monday. Almost all the confirmed cases of measles the state has seen this month are among unvaccinated individuals.
Nearly 70% of those who have fallen ill are children under 10. The state health officials are now urging parents to vaccinate their children to prevent further spread of this potentially life threatening virus, which in severe cases can lead to neurological and respiratory problems.
Before the vaccine was made available in 1963, measles was the leading killer of children globally. Although countries have taken major steps to eradicate the virus, measles still kills 100,000 people each year — and most of them are children under five.
The outbreak in Washington is being linked to a high rate of vaccine exemptions in the state. While all 50 states require children to get certain vaccines, nearly every state allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their child for personal or religious beliefs.
Washington and neighboring Oregon are among the states that allow parents to waive their children's vaccinations for personal or philosophical reasons. Seattle and Spokane, Washington and Portland, Oregon have some of the highest rates of vaccine exemption in the country.
Symptoms include a fever, runny nose, dry cough, sore throat, white spots inside the mouth, and a blotchy skin rash. Outbreaks are difficult to contain since the virus is highly contagious and can spread through the air — without direct physical contact.
"The measles outbreak and its effects impact the life and health of our people, as well as the economy of Washington State, and is a public disaster that affects life, health, property, or the public peace," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement on Friday.
An estimated 2 in every 1,000 children who contract measles die from complications, according to the Center for Disease Control. Pregnant women, young children, and those who are not vaccinated against measles are at highest risk of contracting and experiencing complications from the virus.
The disease is still a rampant threat in many developing countries. More than 95% of measles-related deaths occur in regions where poverty is prevalent and access to quality health care is lacking, according to the World Health Organization.
As health officials work to tackle the measles outbreak in Washington state, it's important to advocate for communities around the world who face challenges in accessing life-saving health services and preventative care.