Tag: stories of vaccine-preventable diseases

Remembering When Everyone Had Measles

In the pre-vaccine era, everyone got measles.

What was that like?

Remembering When Everyone Had Measles

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.

Well, for one thing, before we had a measles vaccine, having measles was considered a rite of passage for kids, but only because they had no choice except to eventually get it!

And when measles came to town, as it inevitably did, most folks got it, leading to missing weeks of school, play, and work, etc.

But it wasn’t all fun and games.

At best, measles left you feeling miserable.

Tragically for some, they didn’t survive having measles.

“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.

It should be clear that when measles was everywhere and everyone had measles, it could affect every aspect of your life.

Quarantines for measles were once very common, although everyone still ended up getting measles eventually.
Quarantines for measles were once very common, although everyone still ended up getting measles eventually.
In 1959, the Los Angeles Times reported that 80% of the kids in this school’s lower grades would be absent in an outbreak that had been ongoing since the previous month
Could you imagine your child’s college shutting down for two weeks because kids were getting sick? This was in 1956.
If measles was so mild, why were colleges shutting down for two weeks?
Quarantines were common to control outbreaks in 1949.
Too bad they didn’t have laptops in 1947, although even if they did, Will Jones would have been too sick to have worked from home when he had measles…
Remember the Lassie episode when Timmie had measles...
Remember the Lassie episode when Timmie had measles… When everyone got measles, measles was every were, even on TV.
Delaying a movie isn’t so bad…
But what about almost delaying a trip to the moon? Remember Apollo 13?
Measles deaths were common in 1952.

When everyone got measles, everyone had problems with measles.

We know what happens when immunization rates drop…

That’s why most of us are very glad to vaccinate and protect our kids. We don’t want them to get measles or any other vaccine-preventable diseases.

More on Remembering When Everyone Had Measles

Remembering Measles

I don’t remember treating any kids with measles in medical school or residency.

We certainly saw a lot of other now vaccine-preventable diseases when I was in training, from rotavirus and pneumococcal disease to meningococcal disease.

“When I graduated from medical school, many of the current vaccines were either not yet invented or just beginning to be widely used. I still remember what health care was like in the pre-vaccine era, and I remember that there seemed to be at least one child in each neighborhood who spent much of her life in an iron lung because of polio. As a young resident in pediatrics, I heard, on the whooping-cough ward, the coughing and choking of children with pneumonia. I remember the brain damage from encephalitis caused by measles, and the birth defects of babies whose mothers had had German measles during pregnancy. In my first years in pediatric practice, I remember making hospital rounds every morning and treating children with meningitis, and complications of chicken pox and other illnesses that have been either eliminated or lessened in severity by the widespread use of vaccines. Also, I remember more than a decade ago when Great Britain temporarily stopped the routine use of the DTP vaccine because of a reaction scare (which later turned out to be a false alarm) and consequently suffered a resurgence of whooping cough. Because of my “historical” perspective, I have grown to appreciate the value of vaccines as a necessary public-health measure. Currently in our pediatric practice, we follow the vaccine schedule recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

Dr. William Sears on Ask Dr. Sears: Vaccination/Immunization Concerns

But I trained in the post-elimination era for measles.

Remembering Measles

Although some folks only seem to have the Brady Bunch to use as a guide, fortunately there are many other ways to discover what measles used to be like.

I asked some of my old instructors…

“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 Koplik’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 hyperpigmented 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.”

Jeed Gan, MD

After reading that account, I’m glad my kids are all vaccinated and protected and hopefully won’t ever get measles, as it sounds horrible.

Although I have never seen it, I can certainly imagine that measly look…

A child with measles and four days of the classic measles rash.
A child with measles and four days of the classic measles rash. Photo by CDC/NIP/ Barbara Rice

What else can you imagine?

“I’ve often called measles ‘the harmless killer’ because, although most youngsters recover uneventfully, the disease a certain amount of really serious damage.”

Dr. Joseph Molner

Can you imagine intentionally leaving your kids unvaccinated and at risk of a harmless killer disease?

In this 1959 article in the Madera Tribune, Dr. Bundesen warns parents to take measles seriously.
In this 1959 article in the Madera Tribune, Dr. Bundesen warns parents to take measles seriously.

It is important to note that even a “mild” attack included a fever that could hit 104F or higher and, altogether the symptoms could last up to 12 days, as the cough often lingers after the rash has cleared up.

Measles is definitely contagious.
Measles is definitely contagious.

And in the pre-vaccine era, everyone ended up having measles, as it was so contagious.

Not everyone survived having measles though.

Even after improved sanitation and hygiene dropped mortality rates for measles and other diseases in the early part of the 20th Century, a lot of kids still died with measles.
Even after improved sanitation and hygiene dropped mortality rates for measles and other diseases in the early part of the 20th Century, a lot of kids still died with measles.

It was once well known that measles was not always so easy on kids.

1953 medical advice column
1953 medical advice column

Why have so many folks forgotten that fact?

Do you think that a 106F fever comes with a mild disease?
Do you think that a 106F fever comes with a mild disease?

Is it because vaccines work so well that we don’t see or hear about measles that much anymore?

Kids with measles feel awful.

At least we don’t hear about them until immunization rates drop and we start having more and more outbreaks.

Is that what it’s going to take to get you to vaccinate your kids? An outbreak in your city? Your child’s school? Or are you going to wait until your kids get sick?

More on Remembering Measles

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Measles?

The first measles vaccine was developed in 1963 and its use led to a quick drop in measles cases in the United States.

In fact, as most people know, the endemic spread of measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000.

What does that mean?

A typical case of measles, as described in 1920, doesn't sound very mild or marvelous as some folks claim it to be.
A typical case of measles, as described in 1920, doesn’t sound very mild or marvelous as some folks claim it to be.

For one thing, it means that many people in the United States have never actually seen anyone with measles.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Measles?

As we are seeing more and more measles cases each year, it makes it important for everyone to learn how to recognize what measles looks like. Measles is so contagious, that missing just one case can lead to a lot of other people getting exposed unnecessarily and can keep an outbreak going.

So what does measles look like?

Call before you go to the ER or to see your doctor if you think your child has measles so that you don't put others at risk.
Call before you go to the ER or to see your doctor if you think your child has measles so that you don’t put others at risk.

After being exposed, kids with measles will develop:

  • a high fever
  • cough and/or runny nose
  • red, watery eyes with photophobia (dislike of bright light)
  • sore throat
  • irritability
  • decreased appetite

That sounds like many other viral infections that kids get though, which is why measles is so hard to diagnose, at least at the beginning stages of the illness, when kids only have the first signs of measles – the fever, cough, runny nose, and conjunctivitis.

Koplik spots, small gray-white spots in your mouth, are another clue that a child might have measles. They can develop on the second or third day of fever.

Next, after having the high fever for 3 to 5 days, kids develop a worsening fever and the classic measles rash. It is important to note that you are contagious well before you get the rash though, up to about four days before the rash develops, providing plenty of chances to expose others before you ever know you have measles.

“It usually begins as flat red spots that appear on the face at the hairline and spread downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs, and feet. Small raised bumps may also appear on top of the flat red spots. The spots may become joined together as they spread from the head to the rest of the body.”

Measles Signs and Symptoms

While many diseases have a fever with or followed by a rash, it is very characteristic of measles that the fever continues for a few more days as the child develops the rash.

“You’ll usually feel most ill on the first or second day after the rash develops.”

Measles Symptoms

This is when most kids get diagnosed, typically with laboratory confirmation.

Unfortunately, because of the high fever and irritability, they may have sought medical attention a few times and could have exposed a lot of people already, especially as you continue to be contagious until you have had the rash for at least four days.

“After a few days, the fever subsides and the rash fades.”

Measles Signs and Symptoms

All together, these classic measles symptoms typically last about a week. As the rash fades, parents might notice staining and then a fine desquamation (skin peeling).

Of course, if any complications develop, the symptoms can last much longer.

What complications? Remember, measles was once called a harmless killer

Complications of measles can include:

  • ear infections
  • diarrhea
  • croup
  • pneumonia
  • seizures
  • encephalitis
  • myocarditis

And tragically, some kids don’t survive having measles.

“Furthermore, the risk of contracting other infections or dying remains high for several months after recovery from acute measles infection.”

Treating Measles in Children

And although most do survive the acute infection, we know that these kids are still at risk for getting other infections in the next few months and are at a later risk for SSPE.

Get vaccinated. Stop the outbreaks. There is no good reason that our kids should have to get measles today.

More on the Signs and Symptoms of Measles