Then vs. Now: The Impressive History of the Measles Vaccine

How one discovery reduced measles cases by 80% in a single year.

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Measles has been around for centuries—the first known written account was by a Persian doctor in the 9th century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, measles didn’t reach epidemic proportions until the 19th century. By then, vaccines were not a new thing: All that was needed was someone to create a successful vaccine specifically for the measles virus.

Measles made its first appearance in the United States in 1657, not long after Europeans started settling in the country. Boston was the first place to get hit by the disease, and colonist John Hull mentioned it in his diary.

It wasn’t until a full century later, in 1757, that the Scottish physician Francis Home proved that measles was caused by an infectious virus in the bloodstream. This set the stage for helping doctors prevent and treat the measles—except their main focus at the time was on smallpox.

Growing Support for “Inoculation”

It’s unclear when exactly the practice of “inoculation” (an early type of vaccination) was discovered, but it’s believed to be traced back to China and India. Early records of Chinese inoculation describe grinding down smallpox scabs into a powder and blowing that into the nostril of another person.

It took centuries for inoculation against smallpox to take hold. Before the downfall of smallpox, the virus killed three out of every 10 people infected, according to the CDC. Smallpox ravaged countries around the world, taking the lives of millions and leaving many with permanent scars or blindness.

Between the 1600s and the 1800s, many leaders throughout the world became inoculated themselves and took public stances in support of the practice. This lead to reduced rates of smallpox, as well as improved methods: Vaccination (which used a cowpox sore to successfully protect against smallpox) became the norm.

With all this support for vaccination, the death toll in London from smallpox decreased from 18,447 to 7,858 in the 1820s. By 1952, smallpox was completely eliminated in the U.S, according to the CDC.

The Discovery of the Measles Vaccine

The history of smallpox was crucial for ending the measles epidemic. The cruelty and high death toll of smallpox propelled support for vaccination, as well as the science to immunize a population successfully against a virus. By the time measles became a major concern, all that was needed was for someone to discover how to make an effective vaccine against it.

Let’s back up: In the United States, as smallpox numbers were dwindling down, the rates of measles were climbing. The measles virus contributed to the massive death toll of the Civil War: In the Union Arm alone, an estimated two-thirds of soldier deaths were caused by “uncontrolled infectious diseases” like measles, as opposed to dying in battle, according to Michael B. A. Oldstone in his book Viruses, Plagues, and History.

Starting in 1912, healthcare workers were required to report all cases of measles. In that first decade of reporting, there was an average of 6,000 cases of measles a year. Measles became so widespread—because the measles virus is very contagious—that by the ‘50s, almost every child became infected before their 15th birthday.  At this time, there were three or four million measles cases annually (which resulted in 400 to 500 deaths a year due to measles complications). 

In 1954, Thomas Peebles was the first to isolate the measles virus by collecting blood samples from infected patients in Boston. Throughout the 1960s, researchers in Boston made multiple attempts at the first measles vaccine. It wasn’t perfect at first; while it prevented measles, it caused side effects.

In 1968, Maurice Hilleman and colleagues perfected the vaccine by weakening it—making an “attenuated” vaccine—and this resulted in a vaccine that protected against measles without causing side effects. This is the vaccine that is still used today (although it was combined with the vaccines for the mumps and rubella in 1971, to make the single MMR vaccine).

The Success of Measles Vaccination

In 1978, the CDC set the goal to eradicate measles by 1982, just as they had eradicated smallpox. That goal was never fully met, but increasing rates of measles vaccinations resulted in a significant drop in infections (and thus deaths). Between 1980 and 1981, measles cases dropped 80 percent.

Since then, widespread vaccination against measles has kept the virus at bay. The U.S. achieved high enough rates to maintain herd immunity, meaning enough people are immune that the disease is unlikely to spread or infect vulnerable people who are not protected (such as newborns who are too young for their vaccines).

Unfortunately, when vaccination rates drop, outbreaks occur. Although the MMR vaccine has been proven safe and effective, myths about vaccines may compel people to forgo vaccination, putting themselves and their communities at risk.

To learn more, find out the recommended vaccine schedule for babies.