American school children reluctantly have been lining up for measles shots since a vaccine became widely available in the 1960s. To kids, the long, sharp, glinting needles threaten much more than the "just a little pinch" the clinicians always promise. But, boy, have they been worth the trepidation. Most pediatricians these days may not see a single measles case over the course of their entire careers.
For previous generations, the measles toll was devastating. In 1772, more than 900 kids died in an outbreak in Charleston, S.C. In 1865, the infection killed 5,000 Civil War soldiers. And as late as 1962, the annual number of U.S. cases exceeded half a million, with more than 400 deaths.
As The Atlantic reported in January regarding the era before vaccinations became commonplace, “People expected to get measles in those days, but they didn’t expect to survive.”
That changed in 1963 when the first live measles vaccine was licensed; in 1968, an improved vaccine was introduced. As school districts and states began requiring kids to be vaccinated, the number of cases dropped steadily. Today, measles is no longer endemic to this country — meaning, as The Atlantic put it, “despite occasional outbreaks, measles doesn’t move through the population continuously.”
Which isn’t to say it has been entirely eliminated in the United States. That was clear late last year and early this year, when an outbreak traced to a visitor to Disneyland eventually found its way to at least seven states, Canada and Mexico. According to reports, 142 people in this country were diagnosed with measles linked to the Disneyland outbreak between Dec. 28 and March 6. Many of those infected had not been vaccinated.
Worldwide, about 145,000 people still die every year from measles, most in Third World countries where the vaccine is hard to come by. That’s way too many, of course, but it is dramatically down from the 2.6 million deaths that occurred annually before the broad availability of vaccinations.