Even in the pre-vaccine era, when measles would kill 500 people a year in the United States, there is a very good chance that you wouldn’t have known anyone that died of measles. Of course, that doesn’t mean that nobody died of measles or chicken pox or any other now vaccine-preventable disease.
You likely know someone that plays football, right? Maybe on a youth football team or in middle school or high school? Do you know anyone that plays on a team in the NFL? While millions of kids might play football, only a few thousand play in the NFL.
Chicken pox was never a benign disease. It was considered a rite of passage because we all had to endure it, but it wasn’t something anyone looked forward to. You don’t die from a benign disease.
Part of that is actually true – “they keep you a customer for life” because you didn’t die from a vaccine-preventable disease!
Many countries don’t have the chicken pox vaccine on their routine immunization schedule because they don’t think it is cost-effective and they were concerned about what controlling chicken pox could do to rates of shingles.
“About 3 in every 1000 pregnant women in the UK catch chickenpox. Between 1985 and 1998, nine pregnant women died in the UK from chickenpox complications. Their unborn babies are also at risk from a rare condition called foetal varicella syndrome (FVS). This can result in serious long-term damage to the baby or even death, particularly if the mother catches chickenpox in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.”
Vaccine Knowledge Project on Chickenpox (Varicella)
These countries have the same rates of shingles as countries that do use the chicken pox vaccine, but still have high rates of chicken pox and complications of chicken pox!
The UK does not vaccinate for chicken pox, but young, otherwise healthy kids die with chicken pox in the UK.
While you will be at higher risk for complications from chicken pox and most other diseases if you have a compromised immune system or are malnourished, if you are otherwise healthy, there is nothing you can do to boost your immune system to try and beat chicken pox – besides getting vaccinated.
Chicken pox parties kind of made sense in the pre-vaccine era. Since it was inevitable that your child would get chicken pox, you wanted them to get it at a young age, so they weren’t at increased risk for complications as an adult.
“Before a vaccine became available in 1963, measles was a rite of passage among American children. A red rash would spread over their bodies. They would develop a high fever. Severe cases could cause blindness or brain damage, or even death.”
CDC says measles almost eliminated in U.S.
Instead, most people develop 10 days of measles symptoms, including a high fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes, and a rash. Photophobia, irritability, sore throat, headache, and abdominal pain are other symptoms that children with measles might have.
“From 1964 through 1971, 16.7% of the death certificates reviewed noted some underlying pathologic condition.”
Roger Barkin, MD on Measles mortality. Analysis of the primary cause of death.
It is most often children, typically young children, without any medical problems who die.
In the post-vaccination era, no one would be expected to die with measles, but those with immune system problems sometimes do, as most others are vaccinated and protected. As vaccinated rates drop though, even otherwise healthy children and adults can once again die of measles.
“Complications were reported in 672 (9.8%) cases, including otitis media in 318 (4.6%) cases, pneumonia in 178 (2.6%), diarrhea in 171 (2.5%), and encephalitis in five (0.1%). Nine hundred thirteen patients (13.3%) were hospitalized, and 10 measles-associated fatalities were reported (case-fatality rate: 1.5 deaths per 1000 reported cases). Eight of the deaths were reported in children less than 5 years of age, all of whom were unvaccinated. None had a reported underlying illness or immunodeficiency. Most deaths have been attributed to pneumonia.”
Measles — United States, First 26 Weeks, 1989
Probably not, but from 1989 to 1991 there were at least 123 measles deaths across the United States, even after measles had been declining for years with the introduction of the measles vaccine in the 1960s. Most of the deaths were otherwise healthy, without underlying medical problems.
Because we don’t typically hear any details about measles deaths, including the almost 90,000 measles deaths that continue to occur around the world each year, most people likely assume that measles only kills in third world countries, where kids are already sick or malnourished. Of course, that wouldn’t explain how over one hundred people died with measles in Europe over the past few years…
Still think that measles isn’t deadly?
Tragically, there are plenty of stories (although most are never reported in the news and we don’t hear about them) and case reports that will prove you wrong:
Olivia Dahl died with measles when she was 7-years-old (1962)
an unvaccinated 3-year-old died in Maricopa County (1970)
a 13-year-old girl who had previously been vaccinated with one of the first inactivated measles vaccines which were found to be ineffective and were replaced with the newer live vaccines died in Michigan (1978)
a 9-month-old died in Chicago (1990)
an unvaccinated 13-year-old died in Kansas (1990)
Tammy Bowman, an 11-year-old unvaccinated girl died in Michigan (1990)
an unvaccinated 13-year-old became the first person in the UK to die with measles in 14 years (2006)
a 14-year-old died of Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE), a late complication of a natural measles infection (2015)
a 16-year-old who had received a heart transplant when she was 2-years-old died in France (2018)
an unvaccinated toddler in Jerusalem (2018)
Measles as a rite of passage?
“We baby boomers were apparently the last generation whose doctors, and therefore parents, accepted the measles as just one more annoying rite of passage of childhood that also happened to prime the immune system and provide lifelong immunity. Medical texts prior to the advent of the vaccine described measles as a benign, selflimiting (sic) childhood infectious disease that posed little risk to the average well-nourished child.”
Darrerl Crain, DC on The Great Measles Misunderstanding
While early pediatric textbooks did a great job describing the symptoms of measles, they also did a great job of documenting that measles was never a benign disease, something anti-vaccine folks still misunderstand because vaccines can do such a good job controlling the disease.
Do benign, self-limiting childhood infections diseases kill hundreds of children every year?
Measles as a rite of passage is something we don’t want to have to go back to. It was a rite of passage that was endured because there was no other choice.