7 Facts About the Measles

Abid Katib, Getty Images
Abid Katib, Getty Images

The measles used to be one of the world’s most common childhood diseases. Since the introduction of the measles vaccine, however, the disease is rarely seen in the U.S. But people have a reason to still feel cautious about what might seem like an old-timey affliction: Between January and July 14, 2018, there were 107 reported cases of the measles across 21 states and Washington, D.C. The year before, 118 people from 15 different states (and D.C.) contracted the disease. Here are seven things to know about the infectious respiratory illness.

1. EVERYONE USED TO GET IT.

There was a time not so long ago when getting measles was a near ubiquitous part of childhood. In the 4th century CE, Chinese alchemist Ko Hung wrote of the differences between smallpox and measles, and the disease was described in the 9th century by the famous Persian physician Rhazes. There were major epidemics of the disease in the 11th and 12th centuries [PDF].

In the years before the first licensed measles vaccination appeared in the U.S. in 1963, an estimated 90 percent of children caught the measles before they were 15. The disease was a leading cause of death for children—and in some places without access to vaccinations and medical care, it still is. Today, up to 5 percent of children in places without access to good medical care die of the measles annually.

The CDC estimates that prior to the existence of the vaccine, there were between 3 and 4 million measles cases in the U.S. per year, approximately 400 to 500 of them fatal—but vaccinations have reduced the prevalence of the disease by 99 percent. In some years, less than 100 people contract the disease in the U.S.

2. IT’S HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS.

The measles virus is considered one of the most contagious viruses around: Without vaccination, around 90 percent of people who are exposed to the virus will become infected.

The disease is caused by the spread of a type of virus called morbillivirus, which can spread through the air via breathing, coughing, or sneezing. The virus can live in the air for up to two hours after an infected person coughed—meaning that you don’t necessarily need to be standing next to someone with the measles to get it from them.

3. IT CAN CAUSE MORE THAN JUST A RASH.

A person exposed to measles will begin to show symptoms seven to 14 days after exposure. The disease presents itself with symptoms like coughing, congestion, fever, and most famously, a full-body skin rash. But a third of measles cases involve complications ranging from diarrhea to pneumonia, brain swelling, and coma. Pneumonia causes around 60 percent of fatalities when it comes to measles complications.

Children under 5 are particularly at risk of getting complications and dying from the disease. One in 10 will contract an ear infection, possibly leading to permanent hearing damage, and one in 20 will get pneumonia. One or two out of every 1000 kids who contract the measles will die, according to the CDC, many from pneumonia

4. THE VACCINE IS VERY EFFECTIVE.

The measles is combined with vaccines against two other diseases—mumps and rubella—and when administered as designed, it's incredibly effective. Experts recommend that children get their first dose of the MMR vaccine on their first birthday (but not before). Then, they should get the second dose before they enter kindergarten. If a child doesn’t get vaccinated before they’re 12, they should still get the vaccine: two doses a month apart. In most cases, those two doses of the vaccine should be enough to give you immunity for life (although some experts are now cautioning booster shots may be a good idea for some adults).

If you’re exposed to the virus and haven’t been vaccinated, an immediate dose of the vaccine can provide some protection from the disease, as long as you get it within 72 hours of exposure.

5. IT’S CONSIDERED ELIMINATED IN THE U.S. …

Thanks to effective vaccinations, as of 2000, measles is no longer a threat in the U.S., according to the CDC’s standards. The disease is considered eliminated, which means that it hasn’t been continuously transmitted in a specific geographical location for at least a year. So even if there’s the occasional outbreak of cases, it’s considered eliminated because it’s not a constant threat anymore. In 2016, the World Health Organization declared the disease to be eliminated across the entirety of North and South America.

6. ... BUT YOU SHOULD STILL GET VACCINATED.

Measles isn’t prevalent in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean you can skip your vaccinations: Though home-grown measles has been eliminated, people in the U.S. still come down with it. That’s because measles is still a major issue elsewhere in the world, and travelers can bring it home with them, spreading it to unvaccinated populations in the U.S.

That includes babies. Children under 5 are one of the most vulnerable populations when it comes to measles infections, but babies aren’t generally vaccinated until they’re 12 months old (the CDC recommends that before international travel, “infants 6 months through 11 months of age should receive one dose of MMR vaccine” and then get a shot again when they’re a little older). That makes it incredibly important for everyone around them to be vaccinated, so that the disease can’t spread.

In addition to inoculating individuals against diseases, vaccines operate on the principle of herd immunity. When nearly an entire population is vaccinated, it’s very hard for the disease to spread. That protects people who aren’t inoculated, like babies, or people whose bodies didn’t respond to the vaccine for whatever reason.

7. PEOPLE STILL GET MEASLES IN AMERICA.

Since measles was declared eliminated in 2000, there have been relatively few cases reported here, but a significant number of people have caught the disease in the past few years. In 2004, there were just 37 cases of measles reported in the U.S. Ten years later, in 2014, there were 667—most of whom were people who weren’t vaccinated. (That number was unusually high, and went down to 188 cases the next year.)

The CDC blames recent measles outbreaks on low rates of vaccination. One 2016 review of measles studies found that out of 970 measles cases, almost 42 percent of patients had opted out of getting the vaccine for non-medical reasons.

Europe has also seen a surge in measles cases in the last few years. Between 2016 and 2017, measles cases in Europe quadrupled, from 5273 cases to more than 21,000, according to the World Health Organization. Thirty-five of those 21,000 people died from the disease. This is bad news for Americans, too, since most U.S. measles cases can be linked back to travelers coming into the U.S. from places like Europe. So get your vaccinations!

Can You Guess How These Diseases Were Treated in the 1700s?

17 Bizarre Natural Remedies From the 1700s

In the late 1740s, John Wesley—a British evangelist and the co-founder of Methodism—published Primitive Physick, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. The tome gave regular people ways to cure themselves with natural remedies, using items they could find in their own homes.

When in doubt, Welsey thought that drinking cold water or taking cold baths could cure most illnesses (including breast cancer); some of his suggestions, like using chamomile tea to soothe an upset stomach, have survived today. Other natural remedies he whipped up, though, are decidedly strange. Here are a few of them.

1. To Cure An Ague

Wesley describes an ague as “an intermitting fever, each fit of which is preceded by a cold shivering and goes off in a sweat.” There are many natural remedies for curing it, but all must be preceded by taking a “gentle vomit,” which, if taken two hours before the fit, Wesley says will generally prevent it, and may even cure the ague. If the vomiting fails, however, Wesley suggests wearing a bag of groundsel, a weed, “on the pit of the stomach, renewing it two hours before the fit.” The weed should be shredded small, and the side of the bag facing the skin should have holes in it.

Should this not work, Wesley suggests a remedy that requires a stronger stomach: “Make six middling pills of cobwebs, take one a little before the cold fit: Two a little before the next fit: The other three, if Need be, a little before the third fit. I never knew this fail.”

2. To Cure a Canine Appetite

Wesley turns to a Dr. Scomberg for the cure to this condition, which is defined by Wesley as “an insatiable desire of eating”: If there’s no vomiting, canine appetite “is often cured by a small Bit of Bread dipt in Wine, and applied to the Nostrils."

3. To Cure Asthma

Tar water, sea water, nettle juice, and quicksilver are all acceptable cures for what Wesley calls "moist Asthma" (which is characterized by “a difficulty of breathing … the patient spits much”). But a method that “seldom fails,” Wesley says, is living “a fortnight on boiled carrots only.”

Dry and convulsive asthma, meanwhile, can be treated with toad, dried and powdered. “Make it into small pills,” Wesley writes, “and take one every hour until the convulsions fade.”

4. To Prevent or Cure Nose Bleeds

Drinking whey and eating raisins every day, Wesley says, can help prevent nose bleeds. Other methods for preventing or curing the phenomenon include “hold[ing] a red hot poker under the nose” and “steep[ing] a linnen rag in sharp vinegar, burn[ing] it, and blow[ing] it up the nose with a Quill.”

5. To Cure a “Cold in the Head”

Getting rid of this common ailment is easy, according to Wesley: Just “pare very thin the yellow rind of an orange," he writes. "Roll it up inside out, and thrust a roll inside each nostril.”

6. To Cure “An Habitual Colick”

Today's doctors define colic as a condition suffered by "a healthy, well-fed infant who cries for more than three hours per day, for more than three days per week, for more than three weeks." But adults can get it, too; it's characterized by severe stomach pains and spasms (which, we now know, can be an indication of other conditions, like Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome). To cure it, Wesley suggests this odd remedy: “Wear a thin soft Flannel on the part.”

6. To Cure “White Specks in the Eye”

While it's unclear exactly what "white specks in the eye" actually is—eye floaters, maybe—Wesley suggests that, when “going to bed, put a little ear-wax on the Speck.—This has cured many.”

7. To Cure the Falling Sickness

Those who suffer from this illness “fall to the ground, either quite stiff, or convulsed all over, utterly senseless, gnashing his teeth, and foaming at the mouth.” To cure the condition, Wesley recommends “an entire milk diet for three months: It rarely fails.” During fits, though, “blow up the nose a little powder’d ginger.”

8. To Cure Gout

“Regard not them who say the gout ought not to be cured. They mean, it cannot,” Wesley writes. (They, here, might be referring to regular practitioners of medicine.) “I know it cannot by their regular prescriptions. But I have known it cured in many cases, without any ill effect following.” Gout in the foot or hand can be cured by “apply[ing] a raw lean beef-steak. Change it once in 12 hours, ‘till cured.”

Curing the gout in any limb can be accomplished by beginning this ritual at six in the evening: “Undress and wrap yourself up in Blankets. — Then put your Legs up to the Knees in Water, as hot as you can bear it. As it cools, let hot Water be poured in, so as to keep you in a strong Sweat till ten. Then go into a Bed well warm'd and sweat till Morning. — I have known this to cure an inveterate Gout.”

9. To Cure Jaundice

Wesley suggests curing jaundice—which turns the skin and whites of the eyes yellow (thanks to too much bilirubin in the blood, we now know)—by wearing "leaves of Celandine upon and under the feet." Other possible cures include taking a small pill of Castile soap in the morning for eight to 10 days, or "as much lies on a shilling of calcin’d egg-shells, three mornings fasting; and walk till you sweat.”

10. To Cure “The Iliac Passion”

This decidedly unpleasant condition—which Wesley defines as a “violent kind of Colic ... the Excrements are thrown up by the mouth in vomiting,” eww—has a few cures, including “apply[ing] warm Flannel soaked in Spirits of Wine.” Most delightful, however, is the cure recommended by a Dr. Sydenham: “Hold a live Puppy constantly on the Belly.”

11. To Cure “the Palpitation or Beating of the Heart”

Among the remedies for this ailment are the mundane “drink a Pint of cold Water,” the stinky-but-probably-not-effective “apply outwardly a Rag dipt In vinegar,” and the very exciting “be electrified” (which is suggested for a few other illnesses as well).

12. To Cure Pleurisy

This illness is characterized by “a Fever attended with a violent pain in the Side, and a Pulse remarkably hard.” (It's caused, we now know, when the double membrane that surrounds the lungs inside the chest cavity becomes inflamed.) Wesley’s first suggested remedy involves applying “to the Side Onions roasted in the Embers, mixt with Cream." Next up is filling the core of an apple with frankincense “stop[ping] it close with the Piece you cut out and roast[ing] it in Ashes. Mash and eat it.” Sounds delicious!

13. To cure Quinsy

“A quinsy,” Wesley explains, “is a Fever attended with Difficulty of Swallowing, and often Breathing.” (Today, the condition is called peritonsillar abscess and it's known to be a complication of tonsillitis.) He suggests applying “a large White-bread Toast, half an Inch thick, dipt in Brandy, to the crown of the Head till it dries.”

14. To Cure “A Windy Rupture”

Wesley doesn't say what, exactly, this condition is, though a Google search brings up the term hernia ventosa, which another medical book of the same time defines as a "false hernia ... where the wind is pent up by the coats of the Testes, inflating and blowing up the inguen," or the groin area. Wesley prescribes the following method to cure it: “Warm Cow-dung well. Spread it thick on Leather, [throwing] some cummin seeds on it, and apply it hot. When cold, put on a new one.” This, he says, “commonly cures a Child (keeping his Bed) in two Days.”

15. To Cure a "Tooth-ach"

Wesley suggests being electrified through the tooth. If that’s too extreme for you, try “rub[bing] the Cheek a Quarter of an Hour ... Or, put[ting] a Clove of Garlick into the Ear.”

16. To Stop Vomiting

Induced vomiting was an important part of Wesley's medical theories (remember the "gentle vomit" that could stop the ague?). But if a patient was vomiting and it wasn't a part of the prescribed method for curing him, Wesley advised "after every Vomiting, drink a pint of warm water; or, apply a large onion slit, to the Pit of the Stomach."

17. To Heal a Cut

Wesley suggests holding the cut closed "with your thumb for a quarter of an hour" (what we might call applying pressure these days), then dipping a rag in cold water and wrapping the cut in it. Another method: "Bind on toasted cheese," Wesley writes. "This will cure a deep cut." Pounded grass, applied fresh every 12 hours, will also do the trick.

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