Most pediatricians who finished medical school and residency in the past ten to fifteen years likely didn't see a single case of measles during their training.
They were probably even taught that they might not ever see a case, just like new doctors might not ever see a case of polio, Hib epiglottis, congenital rubella syndrome, or other vaccine preventable diseases.
But of course measles cases are on the rise and it is becoming more likely that doctors will eventually see a patient with measles in their office.
With all of the current outbreaks, measles is obviously not just a disease of the past. That makes it important to learn about the history of measles so that we don't repeat past mistakes, like the low immunization rates that led to the large measles outbreaks from 1989 to 1991.
Measles has likely been around since the 9th century. The more recent history of measles includes:
- 1772 - over 900 children in Charleston, SC die in a measles outbreak
- 1846 - Peter Panum publishes some of the research about measles epidemics
- 1865 - 5,000 soldiers in the Civil War die from measles
- 1918 - more than 2,000 soldiers in World War I die from measles
- 1920 - 469,924 cases (7,575 deaths) in the United States
- 1941 - 894,134 cases
- 1954 - measles virus isolated by Thomas Peebles, MD
- 1958 - first measles vaccine is tested
- 1962 - 503,282 cases (432 deaths)
- 1963 - first live measles vaccine licensed
- 1968 - improved live measles vaccine licensed
- 1970 - 47,351 cases (89 deaths)
- 1971 - MMR vaccine introduced
- 1978 - 26,871 cases (measles targeted for eliminated in U.S. by 1982)
- 1983 - 1,497 cases
- 1986 - 6,282 cases
- 1989 - 18,193 cases (measles outbreaks tied to low vaccination rates)
- 1990 - 27,786 cases (routine MMR booster added to immunization schedule)
- 1991 - 9,643 cases (123 deaths over previous three years)
- 1992 - 2,200 cases
- 1994 - 963 cases
- 1996 - 508 cases (last record high number of measles cases)
- 1998 - 100 cases
- 2000 - 86 cases (endemic spread of measles eliminated in U.S.)
- 2002 - 44 cases
- 2004 - 37 cases (record low number of measles cases)
- 2006 - 55 cases
- 2008 - 140 cases (recent record high number of measles cases)
- 2009 - 71 cases
- 2010 - 61 cases
- 2011 - 220 cases (year-to-date - *new 15 year record)
- 2012 - 54 cases
Other notable happenings in the measles and measles vaccination timeline, some of which help explain why we are still seeing so many cases of measles today, include:
- 1998 - Wakefield study suggests relationship between MMR and autism
- 2002 - Wakefield continues to publish article suggesting vaccines aren't safe, which get a lot of media coverage
- 2006 - Jenny McCarthy begins promoting anti-vaccine beliefs - appears on Oprah
- 2007 - Dr. Bob's Vaccine Book released
Even though the Wakefield study was eventually retracted and the results were even found to be faked, some parents still don't like the idea of giving the MMR vaccine to their children. Although overall immunization rates in the U.S. are high, there are pockets of low immunization rates in some communities and at some schools that keep outbreaks going.
The resurgence of measles in the UK led to increased vaccination rates, from a low of 81% from 2002 to 2004, back up 89% by 2010. Hopefully we won't have to see the high rates seen in the UK and the rest of Europe before our own vaccination rates increase to the levels that will stop our own outbreaks.
CDC. Notifiable Diseases and Mortality Tables. MMWR. 1982-2010.
The Pink Book: Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine Preventable Diseases. Updated 11th Edition, (May 2009)
Weisberg SS. Measles. Dis Mon.October 2007; 53(10); 471-477