On the darkest day of 2018, the winter solstice, we at the Center for Vaccine Research at the University of Pittsburgh tweeted, with despair, a report in the Guardian that measles cases in Europe reached the highest number in 20 years. Why was this a cause for concern? Europe is far away from the United States, and as some people apparently believe measles is a benign, childhood disease that causes a bit of a rash, a dribbling nose and a few spots, right? What was all the fuss about?
Well as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Collective amnesia about the virulence of this disease has driven us to forget that measles virus has killed tens of millions of infants throughout history. Now, with several ongoing outbreaks across our own country, this unnecessary threat is back.
Measles is a highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease that spreads like wildfire in naive populations. The virus played its part in decimating Native American populations during the age of discovery. Since these groups had no natural immunity to the diseases brought to the New World by Europeans, some estimates suggest up to 95 percent of the Native American population died due to smallpox, measles and other infectious diseases.
In the 1960s, measles infected about 3-4 million people in the U.S. each year. More than 48,000 people were hospitalized, and about 4,000 developed acute encephalitis, a life-threatening condition in which brain tissues become inflamed. Up to 500 people died, mainly from complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis. This was why vaccine pioneers John Enders and Thomas Peebles were motivated to isolate, weaken and develop a vaccine against measles that is truly transformative for human health. Parents who knew the reality of the disease were quick to vaccinate their children. Uptake skyrocketed and the number of cases, and associated deaths, plummeted in the developed world.
By 1985, when John Enders died, over 1 million of the world’s kids were still dying because of this infection. However, now measles was a disease preventable by vaccine, and there was a huge impetus to address that tragedy by the World Health Organization.
When I started working on the virus in 1996, there were still over 500,000 children dying of measles each year worldwide. Such big numbers can be hard to digest. So…
Latest posts by Mayra Rodriguez (see all)
- Exposure to cannabis alters the genetic profile of sperm - February 17, 2019
- Here’s How to Turn Walking Into a Seriously Great Workout, According to Trainers - February 17, 2019
- Bloating Is the Worst — Here Are the Most Likely Causes and How to Squash Them Fast - February 17, 2019