The measles infected nearly every child in the US — until a vaccine was introduced

  • Nearly every U.S. child contracted measles at some point before a measles vaccine was introduced in 1963.
  • About half a million new cases were reported to the CDC annually between 1942 and 1962.
  • Measles was eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. More than 900 cases have been reported this year.

Cheryl Healton remembers the look on her mother’s face when the then 8-year old was diagnosed with measles in 1961.

“I could tell by her reaction that my life was at risk,” said Healton, now 66 and the dean of New York University’s College of Global Public Health.

It was. While measles is best known for the rash it produces, the disease leaves people sick with a fever, runny nose, and can lead to complications like pneumonia, brain swelling and, in some cases, even death.

Nearly every American child contracted measles at some point before they turned 15 before a measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half a million new cases were reported to the CDC every year between 1942, the first year it was tracked, and 1962.

Most cases went unreported, and the CDC estimates up to 4 million people actually caught the measles every year. About 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized and 1,000 suffered encephalitis, or brain swelling.

That changed when the measles vaccine hit the market. Measles cases started plummeting. The first mumps vaccine was introduced in 1967 and the first rubella vaccine was introduced in 1969. In 1971, Merck launched the first combination measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

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