All about measles

Here is the introduce to a promised 5 part series on measles done on the wonderful blog Mystery Rays from Outer Space. I plan to follow the entire series as they are posted.

Measles week, part I: Introduction

By iayork

Zhong Kui punishing two gods of measles.
Zhong Kui, a Chinese god, punishing two gods of measles (1862)

I’ve talked before about measles incidence and the effect of vaccination. Now I’m going to spend this whole week talking about measles deaths, because I ended up with more than I could cover in one or two posts. So this is Part I of a five-parter.

A group of diseases which … even now are considered to be unavoidable are scarlet fever, measles, and whooping cough. … According to the statistics collected in the census of 1900, these three diseases were responsible for upward of thirty thousand deaths in the course of a year.”

–”The Conservation of the Child”, by Earl Mayo. in The Outlook. A Weekly Newspaper. Volume XCVII. January-April, 1911 (pp. 893-903)

That was the situation in 1911 and in the early 20th century generally, and for centuries before that. Almost every child caught measles, and a lot of them died. Measles wasn’t quite as lethal as smallpox, but it wasn’t too far behind:

Measles should no longer be considered a “minor” infection. It is a major illness causing a considerable mortality and a much greater morbidity among young children affected by it. 1

(By the way, as well as citing my direct quotes in footnotes as usual, I’ve collected the 40-odd references I read while trying to figure this story out and put them up here.)

But, starting somewhere around 1915, that began to change. Very gradually (so gradually that it almost escaped attention) measles stopped being a fatal disease. In 1945, William Butler said:

In three-score years or so, during which the population of England and Wales has nearly doubled, the gross annual contribution of deaths from measles has fallen to about one-twelfth of the mean figure at which during several quinquennia it stood in the eighties and nineties of the last century. Nor is there reason to believe–on the contrary–that measles is now less prevalent than it was. It is still true that nearly everyone at one time or another has measles. 2

And the trend didn’t stop there. In 1945, about 163 out of every 100,000 measles cases died. In 1955, just 25 of 100,000 died, and it’s hovered around there since.

In other words, a person who caught measles in 1900 was between 40 and 150 times more likely to die than someone who caught the virus in 1955. You can play with the numbers in various ways, but no matter what you do there has been an absolutely, spectacularly, incredible drop in measles case-fatality rates. for much much more:


  1. Where’s the rest of this article?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: