How the measles made a comeback

The measles have made a comeback, health officials say.
The measles have made a comeback, health officials say.

For centuries, physicians sought to prevent measles. They finally succeeded in the early 1960s, but in 1998 research erroneously linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. Now, measles have made a comeback.

     During the first month of this year, 102 people from 14 states reported having the measles in an outbreak that began with a patient at the Disneyland amusement park in California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
     Politicians have weighed in on whether immunization should be a choice or a requirement. A Pew Research Center survey shows that 68 percent of Americans feel parents should be required to get their children vaccinated. But only 59 percent of younger adults – 18 to 29 – thought vaccines should be required. The remainder, 41 percent, said parents should be able to choose whether to immunize their children.  
     Older adults see things differently. Among those age 65 and up, a whopping 79 percent said that vaccines should be required. Pew speculates that older Americans can remember when childhood diseases were common.
     To put this in perspective, the CDC website says measles are so contagious that if one person has it, "90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected." So how did Americans get to the point where many question whether children should have the vaccine? To understand, here are some milestones in research, according to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s website, The History of Vaccines:

  • 900 A.D. -- Rhazes, a Persian physician, attempts to distinguish between measles and the smallpox.
  • 1676 -- Thomas Sydenham, an English doctor, successfully distinguishes measles from smallpox and scarlet fever. 
  • 1954 -- Thomas Peebles, an American doctor working at the Boston Children's Hospital laboratory of Dr. John F. Enders, investigates an outbreak at a nearby elementary school. Peebles successfully isolates the measles virus, according to The New York Times.
  • Late 1950s and early 1960s -- Vaccines are tested on mentally retarded and disabled children. 
  • 1963 -- Enders and colleagues announce they have a vaccine capable of preventing infection.
  • 1971 -- The U.S. government licenses Merck & Co.'s measles, mumps and rubella combination vaccine, better known as the MMR.
  • 1978 -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announces a goal of eliminating measles by 1982. 
  • 1998 -- British researcher Andrew Wakefield, along with co-authors, publishes a paper in the Lancet claiming to have evidence of the measles virus in the digestive systems of some autistic children who were vaccinated, The History of Vaccines recounts. Later, this research would be widely credited with alarming parents and ultimately raising questions about the safety of the MMR vaccine, according to a Canadian Medical Association report. 
  • 2010 -- A dozen years after that study, in February 2010, the Lancet retracts the paper, citing problems with the research.

     The CDC website notes that parents also have been specifically concerned about a preservative once used in vaccines, thimerosal, but "in 2001 thimerosal was removed or reduced to trace amounts in all childhood vaccines except for one type of influenza vaccine, and thimerosal-free alternatives are available for influenza vaccine.”


      Flashback: Return of the mumps

      A primer: measles, mumps and rubella


      The College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s website, The History of Vaccines

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