Believe it or not, measles didn’t get it’s name from the measles virus.
After all, the virus wasn’t discovered until 1954, by John Enders.
Making America Measly Again
So where did the name measles come from?
One idea is that it came from the Middle English word mesel, which means a leper. Another that it is from the Latin misellus, the diminutive form of miser – wretched.
“Measles is, he says, derived from the Dutch maseln (measles) ; the disease is also called in Holland mczsel-sucht, the measle-sickness; so translated by an old English writer. The literal sense is “small spots.” The original word occurs in the Middle High German mase,’ Old High German masa, a spot. Hirsch also states that the English word “measles” corresponds to the German Maal, and Masern, and the Sanscrit masurra, spots. Doubtless it is to this meaning of spots, hence spotty, that we owe the term “measly pork,” as applied to the meat of the pig when infested with scolices of tasnia.”
Sykes On the Origin and History of Some Disease Names
Most people think that the etymology of measles is Dutch.
It’s shouldn’t be a surprise that few of us know where the name comes from, as few folks have actually seen a kid with measles, even with the recent rise in measles cases.
“Typical case of measles – a couple days of high fever, with a sick (miserable) looking kid with running nose, bad cough, and red eyes. You can see Koplic’s spots if you know to look for them on the buccal mucosa (I describe them as grains of salts on red tablecloth). Fever gets higher and rash appears at peak of fever (day 3-4). The rash disappears with a brawny hyperpigmentation appearance. The child frequently gets diagnosed with an ear infection. If no complications (ear infection or pneumonia), recovery is quick once the fever resolves, but these kids look really sick, miserable, and sad during the acute phase. They have a measly look.”
“Existing evidence on the safety and effectiveness of MMR vaccine supports current policies of mass immunisation aimed at global measles eradication and in order to reduce morbidity and mortality associated with mumps and rubella.”
Cochrane Systematic Review on Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children
Let’s see if you still are after we get all of your questions about the measles vaccine answered…
How long has the measles vaccine been around? The very first measles vaccine was licensed by John Enders in 1963. An improved measles vaccine was developed by Maurice Hilleman and licensed in 1968, and that is the measles vaccine that we still use today, at least in the United States. It was combined into the MMR vaccine in 1971.
How effective is the measles vaccine? A single dose of the measles vaccine is about 93% effective at preventing a measles infection. Two doses (the second dose was added to the routine immunization schedule in 1994) are up to 97% effective. That’s why almost all of the people who get measles in an outbreak are unvaccinated.
How long does immunity from the measles vaccine last? Immunity from the measles vaccine is thought to be life-long. It is important to understand that the second dose isn’t a booster dose, but is instead for those few folks who don’t respond to the first dose.
Who should get the measles vaccine? Everyone without a true medical contraindication should get the measles vaccine (MMR), with the first dose at 12-15 months and a second dose at 4-6 years.
Can my kids get their measles vaccine early? An advanced immunization schedule is available for kids in an outbreak or if they will be traveling out of the country. The first dose can be given as early as age 6-months, but is repeated when the child is 12 months because of concerns of interference with maternal antibodies. The official second dose can be given early too, as early as 4 weeks after the first dose, as long as the child is at least 12 months old.
Do I need a booster dose of the measles vaccine? People who are fully immunized do not need a booster dose of the MMR vaccine, but it is important to understand whether or not you are really fully immunized to see if you need a second dose. Some adults who are not high risk are considered fully vaccinated with only one dose, while others should have two doses. Are you at high risk to get measles? Do you travel, live in an area where there are measles outbreaks, go to college, or work as a health care professional?
Should I check my measles titers? In general, it is not necessary to check your titers for measles. If you haven’t had two doses of the MMR vaccine, then get a second dose. If you have had two doses of the MMR vaccine, then you are considered protected. Keep in mind that there is no recommendation to get a third dose of MMR for measles protection, although it is sometimes recommended for mumps protection during a mumps outbreak.
If my child gets a rash after getting his MMR, does that mean that he has measles? No. This is a common, very mild vaccine reaction and not a sign of measles.
Can the measles vaccine cause seizures? The MMR vaccine can cause febrile seizures. It is important to remember that without other risk factors, kids who develop febrile seizures after a vaccine are at the same small risk for developing epilepsy as other kids. And know that vaccines aren’t the only cause of febrile seizures. Vaccine-preventable diseases can cause both febrile seizures and more serious non-febrile seizures.
Why do people think that that the measles vaccine is associated with autism? It is well known that this idea originated with Andrew Wakefield, but the real question should be why do some people still think that vaccines are associated with autism after so much evidence has said that they aren’t?
What are the risks of the measles vaccine? Like other vaccines, the MMR vaccine has mild risks or side effects, including fever, rash, and soreness at the injection site. Some more moderate reactions that can rarely occur include febrile seizures, joint pain, and a temporary low platelet count. More serious reactions are even rarer, but can include deafness, long-term seizures, coma, or lowered consciousness, brain damage, and life-threatening allergic reactions.
When did they take mercury out of the measles vaccine? Measles vaccines, including the MMR, have never, ever contained mercury or thimerosal.
Why do we still have outbreaks if we have had a measles vaccine since 1963? In the United States, although the endemic spread of measles was declared eliminated in 2000, many cases are still imported from other countries. As measles cases increase around the world, that is translating to an increase in outbreaks here. Even though overall vaccination rates are good, because there are many pockets of susceptible people in areas that don’t vaccinate their kids, they get hit with outbreaks.
Can we eradicate measles? Because measles is so contagious, the vaccine does have failures, and some folks still don’t get vaccinated, there is some doubt that we can eradicate measles without a better vaccine. That doesn’t mean that the current measles vaccines can’t prevent outbreaks though…
Are you ready to get your kids their MMR vaccine so that they are vaccinated and protected against measles, mumps, and rubella?
There is a lot more interest in polio these days, but not because we are close to eradicating this deadly disease, but rather because of the emergence of cases of acute flaccid myelitis (AFM).
Although the cases have a different cause, the symptoms of AFM are the same that we used to see during the outbreaks of polio that used to hit each summer in the pre-vaccine era.
Surprisingly, in most people, the poliovirus doesn’t actually cause any symptoms. They simply have an asymptomatic infection.
In some others, the poliovirus causes flu-like symptoms, including a fever, sore throat, nausea, and a headache – symptoms that last about 3 to 5 days.
Much more rarely, the poliovirus causes meningitis or paralysis.
It is these cases of paralytic polio that most people are aware of and that panicked parents during summers in the 1940s and 50s.
After having flu-like symptoms, those kids who would develop paralytic polio can develop pain and then flaccid paralysis.
“The most severe form, paralytic poliomyelitis, which is seen in less than 1% of patients, presents as excruciating episodes of pain in back and lower limbs. In children, the disease may present in biphasic form—a period of prodrome followed by a brief symptom-free period of 7 to 10 days and then appearance of asymmetrical paralysis of limbs. Flaccid paralysis is the hallmark with loss of deep tendon reflexes eventually.”
Mehndirattta et al on Poliomyelitis Historical Facts, Epidemiology, and Current Challenges in Eradication
Of course, polio wasn’t always called polio.
Other names have included infantile spinal paralysis, infantile paralysis, Heine-Medin disease, poliomyelitis anterior acuta, and acute anterior poliomyelitis.
The first use of the name “polio” came from Adolph Kussmaul, with his use of the term poliomyelitis anterior acuta, which was derived from the Greek polios “grey” and myelos “marrow” and itis “inflammation.” It was because he knew that it was caused by inflammation of the spinal cord gray matter, even if he didn’t know why.
Polio didn’t just suddenly appear in the middle of the 20th century though, it was likely around for ages.
In addition to an Egyptian funeral stele (a stone slab used as a monument) portraying Roma the Doorkeeper from 1500 BCE that suggests he had paralytic polio, archeologists have found evidence of polio in skeletons as far back as the Neolithic period.
Still, we don’t really know how long polio has been around and we don’t know why we began to see more cases in the mid-20th Century, although there are theories, including, ironically, about hygiene. While we often credit improved sanitation and hygiene for helping to reduce mortality from many diseases, some think that this actually set us up for polio outbreaks, as we were no longer exposed as infants, when we still had some maternal immunity.
The one thing that we do know is that we are on the verge of eradicating polio, as there are very cases now, in just a few countries.
Polio Timeline and Milestones
In addition to the more ancient discoveries about polio, there is a lot to learn about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases if we look at the major milestones of this important disease.
Although in the end it is a success story, the road to figuring out what caused polio symptoms and how polio could be prevented was very long.
Michael Underwood describes what is thought to be paralytic polio in his book A Treatise on the Diseases of Children, with General Directions for the Management of Infants from Birth in a section on “Debility of the Lower Extremities” (1789)
first reported outbreak of polio in Worksop, England (1835)
Jacob von Heine, head of an orthopedic hospital in Germany, publishes a monograph that describes 29 cases of paralytic polio, and actually attributes the condition to inflammation of the anterior horns of the spinal cord, although the cause was still not known (1840)
first use of the term poliomyelitis by Adolph Kussmaul (1874)
Nils August Bergenholtz reports on an outbreak of paralytic polio in Sweden (1881)
Karl-Oskar Medin, a pediatrician who reported on a polio epidemic in Sweden (1887), later presents his findings at the Tenth International Conference in Berlin (1890)
the first major outbreak in the United States is documented in Rutland County, Vermont and causes 132 cases of paralysis and 18 deaths (1894)
Ivar Wickman tracks cases of polio during an epidemic in Sweden in 1905 and was the first to suggest that polio was contagious and that you could get it from “those afflicted with the abortive type” (1907)
although they don’t actually identify the poliovirus, Dr. Karl Landsteiner and Dr. Erwin Popper identify that a virus causes polio when they inject material from the spinal cord of a child who had recently died with polio into the peritoneum of two monkeys, both of which soon developed paralytic polio (1908)
Simon Flexner, first discovers polio antibodies (1911), but unlike other researchers at the time, pushes the theory that polio was spread by the olfactory route, instead of the fecal-oral route, which was why we saw the development of nose sprays, etc., to try and prevent polio, none of which worked of course
a large polio epidemic in the United States causes at least 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths (1916)
Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw invent the first iron lung, the Drinker respirator (1929)
Frank M. Burnet and Jean Macnamara proposed that there were antigenically different strains of poliovirus (1931)
John R. Paul and James D. Trask help figure out how polio was spread by identifying the polio virus in human waste and sewage samples (1932)
Maurice Brodie and John Kolmer have unsuccessful field trials of early polio vaccines, including allergic reactions and vaccine induced polio because of poor attenuation (1935)
Sister Elizabeth Kenny establishes a clinic in Australia to treat polio survivors (1932) and later publishes her treatment recommendations, Infantile Paralysis and Cerebral Diplegia (1937)
the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis is founded by FDR to stop polio (1937)
Carl Kling found traces of the poliovirus in the Stockholm sewage system (1942)
the Sister Kenny Institute is built in Minneapolis, as her treatment methods become widely accepted after years of controversy (1942)
the U.S. Army Neurotropic Virus Commission, including Albert Sabin, gets a grant from the NFIP to study polio in North Africa (1943)
Isabel Morgan actually developed the first inactivated polio vaccine, but only tested it on monkeys (1949)
John Enders, with T. H. Weller and F. C. Robbins, received the Nobel Prize in 1954 for their work on the cultivation of the poliomyelitis viruses (1949)
David Bodian creates the monkey model using field isolates of poliovirus and with Jonas Salk, identifies the three poliovirus serotyes (1950s)
Hilary Koprowki develops the first oral, live polio vaccine, (1950) although Sabin’s vaccine eventually gets licensed because it is thought to be less neurovirulent in monkeys and undergoes more testing
there are 58,000 cases of paralytic polio in the United States (1952)
Renato Dulbecco, with Marguerite Vogt, successfully grows and purifies polio virus (1952)
the Polio Pioneers vaccine field trial, led by Thomas Francis Jr., that proves that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine is safe and effective begins (1954)
last imported case of polio in the United States (1993)
the WHO Region of the Americas is declared polio free (1994)
“last” case of VAPP that was acquired in the United States (1999)
last case of wild poliovirus type 2 (1999)
the WHO Western Pacific Region is declared polio free (2000)
the United States switches back to using the an inactivated polio vaccine because of concerns over VAPP (2000)
the WHO European Region is declared polio free (2002)
outbreak of vaccine derived polio among a group of unvaccinated Amish in Minnesota (2005)
last case of VAPP that was acquired outside the United States, an unvaccinated 22-year-old U.S. college student who became infected with polio vaccine virus while traveling in Costa Rica in a university-sponsored study-abroad program (2005)
last case of VAPP in the United States, a patient with a long-standing combined immunodeficiency who was probably infected in the late 1990s (2009)
Bob Sears says that it is okay to delay the polio vaccine on his alternative vaccine schedule because “we don’t have polio in the United States” (2015)
a global switch from trivalent OPV to bivalent OPV in routine immunization programs (2016)
polio remains endemic in just two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan (2018)
So it should be clear, that despite what some folks think, polio wasn’t conquered overnight. And Salk and Sabin obviously had a lot of help, although those are the names we most commonly hear connected with polio eradication.
“Until poliovirus transmission is interrupted in these countries, all countries remain at risk of importation of polio, especially vulnerable countries with weak public health and immunization services and travel or trade links to endemic countries.”
Global Polio Eradication Initiative on Endemic Countries