The Myth That Measles Isn’t Deadly

Have you ever heard that measles isn’t deadly?

Sure, there are the folks who think that all vaccine preventable diseases are so mild that they wouldn’t kill you unless you lived in a Third World country.

The Myth That Measles Isn’t Deadly

But there are also folks, usually the same folks, who think that the measles virus doesn’t actually kill you – it is instead the complications that are deadly.

For most people, that’s a distinction without a difference.

“The acute pathological effects of measles include the destruction of respiratory epithelium and depression of cellular immunity. These effects interact to transiently increase measles-infected hosts’ susceptibility to respiratory bacterial strains to which they are not immune.”

Measles epidemics of variable lethality in the early 20th century.

After all, if you have measles and die, you probably don’t care if you died because of:

  • viral pneumonia
  • a secondary bacterial pneumonia
  • acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
  • acute measles encephalitis (swelling of the brain)
  • Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) – a late complication of natural measles infections

In the pre-vaccine era, before the early 1960s, about 400 to 500 people would die each year from measles and these complications.

So much for the myth that measles isn’t deadly.

But didn’t they all have underlying medical problems – another measles myth?

No they didn’t. One study of measles deaths in the 1960s found that only about 17% of the people who died with measles as the cause of death had an underlying disease.

And we now know that having a natural measles infection lowers your immunity and puts you at risk of dying from something else, even after you have recovered from your measles infection. That’s why mortality rates go down so much more than expected after measles vaccine programs are introduced in an area.

Measles Is Still Not Marvelous

Although the first measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, an improved version wasn't available until 1968.
Although the first measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, an improved version wasn’t available until 1968.

While it is true that people rarely die of measles in the United States and other developed countries anymore, that’s just because most people are vaccinated and really big outbreaks aren’t that common, especially since the endemic spread of measles was eliminated in 2000.

You don’t have to go back to the pre-vaccine era to remember how measles kills though.

Measles is still deadly, even in this era of modern medicine, good nutrition, and clean water. Not that people in the United States didn’t eat well and have access to indoor plumbing in the 1950s, but medical care has improved.

People can still die when they get measles though.

Consider that at least 123 people died in the United States during the large measles epidemics from 1989 to 1991. Another 11,000 were hospitalized, among only about 55,000 cases.

During even more recent outbreaks of measles:

  • a pregnant woman with measles was hospitalized and had a miscarriage (2013 measles outbreak in Brooklyn)
  • an immunocompromised woman died of pneumonia due to measles (2015 measles outbreak in Clallam County, Washington)

There have been other measles deaths and complications of these preventable infections.

Ending with 667 cases, 2014 became the worst year for measles in the United States since 1994.
Ending with 667 cases, 2014 became the worst year for measles in the United States since 1994.

Although before the Clallam County death, the CDC would say that “the last verifiable death in the United States from acute measles infection occurred in 2003 when there were 2 reported deaths,” death certificates had been filed in 2005, 2009 (2), 2010 (2), and 2012 (2) which listed measles as a cause of death code. These measles deaths are listed in the CDC “Summary of Notifiable Diseases — United States, 2012,” and in the CDC Wonder Compressed Mortality Files Underlying Cause-of-Death database.

Again, that there aren’t more simply reflects that most people are vaccinated.

But when we start seeing more and more cases of measles, more and more people will start to die. Just look at the outbreaks in Europe right now…

We also shouldn’t forget that worldwide, even after a 79% drop in measles deaths just since 2000, there were still 134,200 measles deaths in 2015, about 367 deaths a day.

What To Know About The Myth That Measles Isn’t Deadly

Not only are measles infections deadly, usually from pneumonia and encephalitis, but a natural measles infection can also cause years of immunosuppression, increasing your risk of death from other diseases too.

More About The Myth That Measles Isn’t Deadly

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