VAXOPEDIA Exit Reader Mode

When Was the Last Measles Death in the United States?

How many measles deaths have there been in the United States in the past ten years? Dr. Bob Sears has frequently said that there have been none. 

Dr. Bob Sears actually reassured parents that measles wasn’t deadly in developed countries, neglecting to mention the dozens of people who have died in outbreaks in Europe – another well-nourished population with lower vaccination rates than the U.S.

It is easy to see that Dr. Bob is wrong, not even counting the latest death in 2015.

Measles Deaths in the United States

Measles deaths are thought to occur in about 1 in every 500 to 1,000 reported cases. This is not just in developing countries or in people with chronic medical conditions.

Consider that in an outbreak in the United States from 1989 to 1991, amid 55,622 cases, there were 123 deaths.

More recently, measles cases and measles deaths in the United States include:

So that’s 11 measles deaths since 2000 and at least 8 measles deaths since 2005.

The last death, a woman in Clallam County in Washington, was exposed in an outbreak of mostly unvaccinated people in 2015.

Why do people say that there have been no measles deaths in the United States in the past 10 years? Whether they are misinformed or intentionally trying to misinform people, they are wrong.

The Last Verifiable Measles Death in the United States

The CDC is actually contributing a bit to the confusion over measles deaths, in that when asked, they have historically said that “the last verifiable death in the United States from acute measles infection occurred in 2003 when there were 2 reported deaths.”

They explain the discrepancy between that statement and other CDC reports, like the recently published “Summary of Notifiable Diseases — United States, 2012,” which clearly documents measles deaths in 2005, 2009, and 2010, by saying that those reports are based on “statistical information about deaths in the United States.”

But that statistical information comes from death certificates that are sent in from all over the United States to the National Vital Statistics System. The system isn’t like VAERS, where just anyone can send in a report. You don’t necessarily have to be a doctor to sign and file a death certificate though either, which is why the CDC is probably hung up on saying that the last verifiable measles deaths were in 2003.

To be more precise when talking about measles deaths in the United States, since it doesn’t seem like the CDC has verified each and every measles death after 2003, it is likely best to say that death certificates have been filed in 2005, 2009 (2), 2010 (2), and 2012 (2) that listed measles as a cause of death code.

Of course, that still means that there have been measles deaths in the United States since 2003, especially now that the CDC actually states that “the last measles death in the United States occurred in 2015.”

SSPE – More Measles Deaths

Lately, in addition to deaths from acute measles infections, there have been even more deaths from subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE).

About 6 to 8 years after having measles, children with SSPE develop progressive neurological symptoms, including memory loss, behavior changes, uncontrollable movements, and even seizures. As symptoms progress, they may become blind, develop stiff muscles, become unable to walk, and eventually deteriorate to a persistent vegetative state.

Children with SSPE usually die within 1 to 3 years of first developing symptoms, including in the United States:

That’s 33 SSPE deaths since 2000 and at least 20 SSPE deaths since 2005. Why so many? Many of them can likely be attributed to the large number of cases associated with measles outbreaks from 1989 to 1991.

Fortunately, as the number of measles cases has been dropping in the post-vaccine era, so have the number of SSPE deaths.

The National Registry for SSPE, reported that there were at least 453 cases between 1960 and 1976. There were 225 deaths from SSPE between 1979 and 1998. The registry wasn’t established until 1969 though, and it is now becoming clear that the risk of developing SSPE is much higher than once thought.

A recent study of measles in Germany has found that the risk of developing SSPE is about 1 in 1,700 to 1 in 3,300 cases of measles.

Other Myths About Measles Deaths

One of the classic measles myths we hear is that measles was disappearing even before the measles vaccine was developed. It is true that measles deaths had been dropping since the turn of the century.

The measles death rate (deaths per 100,000 people) in the United States was:

That’s not surprising though. The general death rate had dropped from 17.8 in 1900 to 7.6 in 1960. For infants under age 12 months, the death rate dropped from 162.4 in 1933 to 27 in 1960.

This simply reflects that vaccines were not the only medical technology that helped to save lives in the 20th century and not that measles was already disappearing. Penicillin, insulin, vitamin D, blood typing (allows transfusions of blood that has been typed and cross-matched), dialysis machines, and mechanical ventilators were all discovered in the early 1900s.

Despite how anti-vaccine charts try and mislead you, measles was still very deadly when the first measles vaccines were introduced.

If you notice though, the death rate for measles got stuck after the 1940s at about 0.2 to 0.3, even as modern medicine continued to advance. That’s about 300 to 500 measles deaths each year in the United States. This was after World War II and through the 1950s and early 1960s, hardly a time of poor hygiene or poor nutrition or when Americans were without access to medical care.

It took about 20 years for those deaths to start dropping again, and it took the coming of the measles vaccine to do it.

So if we stop vaccinating, we won’t get to 7,000 measles deaths a year again in the United States. Modern medicine has improved a great deal since 1900. We would eventually get to about 320 to 960 measles deaths a year though (using our current population of 320 million people and a measles death rate between 0.1 and 0.3).

Other Facts About Measles Deaths

People still die of measles.

What else do you need to know about measles deaths?

The latest measles deaths we have been hearing about?

Dozens of infants, children, and adults, almost all unvaccinated have died in large outbreaks since the beginning of 2016 in Europe.

What To Know about Measles Deaths

Measles is still deadly, even in this era of modern medicine, sanitation and good nutrition.

More on Measles Deaths

Updated February 10, 2019