When Measles Epidemics Would Close Schools

Remember when measles epidemics and outbreaks used to close down entire schools and school districts?

No, I don’t either, but of course, like many of us, I’ve been fortunate enough to have grown up in the post-vaccine era for measles and many other vaccine-preventable diseases.

When Measles Epidemics Would Close Schools

Schools in California were closed for at least two weeks in 1917 because of measles epidemics.
Schools in California were closed for at least two weeks because of measles epidemics. Red Bluff Daily News, April 14, 1917

On April 16, 1917, as measles epidemics swept the United States, grammar schools in Red Bluff, California would shut down for at least two weeks.

Why?

Officials found that it was “impossible to cope with measles under present conditions” and they hoped this would help end the epidemic.

The city board of health also urged parents to “use every effort to stamp out the spread of the disease by keeping children at home, by having no child attend picture shows or even Sunday schools.”

This was hardly an isolated event though. School officials in Los Molinos and Redding, California had closed their high school and all grammar schools in late March for two weeks in the hopes “that the disease will wiped out in that time.”

Why the big push to end the outbreaks?

As experts warned that measles dangers were “too generally disregarded” by some, they also knew that “over 11,000 American children died of measles in 1910” and that “this did not include a large number who died of broncho-pneumonia.”

Tragically, there were many deaths in the 1917 measles epidemic too.

In nearby Chico, California, a mother and her 8-year-old died on the same day, while seven other family members were seriously ill and it was stated that “little hope is held for their recovery.”

Schools in Red Bluff didn’t open again until May 7, when finally the “epidemic of measles seems to have lessened its grip.”

Measles Were Never Marvelous

Some folks like to use the fact that there was a Brady Bunch episode about measles to make it seem like it was a mild disease.

If that’s true, then why do old newspaper clippings describe the “scourge of measles” and repeatedly warn how deadly it can be?

“Measles is often fatal to children under five years of age and on this account, special protection should be given to very young children. It is a mistake to expose a child to the disease so that he may “get ’em and have ’em over with.” The after results may effect the health of the individual all through his life.”

Red Bluff Daily News, Epidemic Measles Is Sweeping Over State California

Why were schools closed for three weeks?

Why did so many people die?

While some folks will blame it on a lack of modern medical care, poor nutrition, or poor sanitation back in the early 20th Century, you don’t have to go back that far to find reports of a lot of people dying of measles in the United States.

Even as improved nutrition, sanitation, and health care made many things less deadly, in the pre-vaccine era, in the late-1950s, there were about 450 measles deaths each year in the United States.

A measles epidemic hit New York City in 1951, as this front page NYTimes article reports.
A measles epidemic hit New York City in 1951, as this front page NYTimes article reports.

And at a time of modern nutrition, sanitation, and health care, at least 123 people died in the United States during the large measles epidemic from 1989 to 1991. Another 11,000 were hospitalized, among only about 55,000 cases.

“Two major causes of this epidemic were vaccine failure among a small percentage of school-aged children who had received 1 dose of measles vaccine and low measles vaccine coverage among preschool-aged children”

Dr. Walter Orenstein on the 1989-91 Measles Epidemics

Instead of “mild,” during the 1989-91 epidemics, you were more likely to hear terms like measles “emergency alert,” “Real Crisis Situation,” and “serious problem.”

Measles Still Keeps Kids From School

Fortunately, measles doesn’t close schools anymore. But not because measles has become more mild or easier to treat, after all, there is still no treatment for measles, but rather because most folks are vaccinated.

It can still lead to quarantines for those who aren’t vaccinated though. It is one of the ways that health officials work to control outbreaks.

During the Disneyland measles outbreak in California in 2015, a day care center in Santa Monica was closed (and 30 babies were put in home quarantine) and kids were kept from school at:

  • Amelia Earhart Middle School in Riverside – at least 6 unvaccinated students were kept from school after another student contracted measles
  • Palm Desert High School – 66 students were excluded from school because they are not fully vaccinated against measles
  • Huntington Beach High School – at least 24 unvaccinated students were excluded from school

But you don’t even have to go back that far to find these types of quarantines. In March, an unvaccinated student with measles led to the quarantine and exclusion of 7 other unvaccinated students from Laguna Beach High School in Orange County, California.

But a three week ‘vacation’ is hardly the worse thing that can happen when a measles outbreak comes to town. Measles is still deadly, even today.

Get educated and get vaccinated.

What To Know About When Measles Epidemics Would Close Schools

While you likely don’t remember when large epidemics of measles would close schools, it’s a reminder that measles wasn’t thought of as the mild disease that some claim it was.

More Information About History of Measles Epidemics

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