I’m told that at the beginning of the Civil War, a group of my ancestors gathered their belongings and embarked on a trek from Tennessee to Texas. The caravan consisted of 8 wagons and contained the belongings of several family members, including the family patriarch, his children and his grandchildren.
They never made it to Texas — when they got to Arkansas, they were confronted by a measles epidemic; 8 family members died from the disease, including the family patriarch. Discouraged, the remaining members of the caravan decided to return from whence they came.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, my family members were among 5 million people killed globally by the measles over the last 500 years. The measles has been in the United States since the time of Plymouth Rock, after being imported to the New World by European colonists. Rubella and congenital rubella syndrome, which occurs when a pregnant woman is infected with the disease during her first trimester of pregnancy, soon followed.
But a severe blow was dealt to measles and rubella fifty years ago, exactly 100 years after the Arkansas outbreak — the measles vaccine was released in 1961, followed by the rubella vaccine in 1969. In 1971, a combination of the two vaccines was developed.
Since then, the number of cases has been dwindling — up until last year, only a few dozen cases were reported in the United States. But last year, that number jumped to 91.
Why the increase? In a report published in JAMA Pediatrics, there are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, most cases of measles are imported from other countries, particularly Mexico. But of late more cases have been imported from Europe due to a surge of the epidemic in countries without mandatory vaccination policies.
The second reason is due to parents refusing to have their children vaccinated because of the misguided (according to the CDC) belief that vaccinations cause autism. Both reasons were factors in the Texas outbreak last summer. Most of the victims were members of a church that discouraged vaccinations. When a congregant brought the disease back after being abroad, the illness quickly spread.
But despite importation and clusters of families opting out of immunizations, the CDC has declared that “the elimination of endemic measles, rubella, and congenital rubella have been sustained for a decade.” Bad news for the measles, good news for the American public.