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A white boy with measles

A kid with measles

Symptoms of measles

Measles is a sickness that first makes you feel sick, with a fever, a cough, and a runny nose. Then it gives you a rash all over your skin.

What was smallpox?
What is vaccination?
Measles and Native Americans
History of diseases and medicine

How do you get measles?

It is caused by a virus, and you usually catch it by touching a person with measles, or touching something they touched, or from sneezing or coughing. Measles is very easy to catch. Nine out of ten people who come in contact with measles viruses will catch the disease.

What is a virus?
Vaccination story project

But most people get better on their own. In the Middle Ages, probably about one out of ten people who got measles died, mainly people who were not getting enough food before they got sick. In places with modern food and health care, almost everyone gets better from measles. Once you have had measles, you can’t get it again.

Where did measles come from?

Like many other diseases, measles started as an animal disease. It was probably related to distemper (a dog disease). Because people lived with dogs, at some point measles evolved to attack people as well. This would have happened around the time that people began living in cities.

History of dogs
Bronze Age timeline

Cities provided the big population that the measles virus needs to keep it going. (Otherwise the virus can’t find anyone new to infect and dies out). That may have happened around 2000 BC, in West Asia. At first measles was a serious disease that killed many grown people.

Roman mosaic with the warning “Beware of the dog”

First description of measles

The earliest mention of measles may be the plague of Athens of 430 BC described by Thucydides. (Although some people think that was more likely to be typhoid fever.) There were outbreaks of measles in the Roman Empire, too, the first one maybe in 165 AD.

The plague in Athens
Galen and Roman medicine
Who was Al Razi?
And who was Ibn Sina?
More about Islamic medicine

The Roman doctor Galen describes a serious outbreak of what seems to be measles that began in Carthage (in North Africa) in 251 AD.  The Iranian doctor Al Razi wrote the earliest scientific description of it about 900 AD. He also explained how to tell measles from smallpox. But Al Razi thought that measles and smallpox were two different parts of the same sickness. A little later on, Ibn Sina realized that you caught measles from other people.

Ibn Sina's medical text from the 1000s AD

Ibn Sina’s medical text from the 1000s AD

A childhood disease

By the 1500s, most grown people in Europe, Asia, and North Africa had already had measles, and so they were immune to it. So measles became a sickness that mainly children got in those places.

John Enders, who invented the measles vaccine, in 1961

John Enders, who invented the measles vaccine, in 1961

Measles and Native Americans

The worst measles plague was when European traders and explorers gave measles (along with smallpox) to the people of North and South America in the 1500s AD. Because this was a disease which nobody in America had ever had before, nobody had any resistance to it. Measles and smallpox together seem to have gradually killed about nine out of every ten people living in North and South America.

Colonization timeline

A vaccination against measles

In the 1950s, John Enders of Boston succeeded in making a vaccination against measles, and, beginning in the 1960s, nearly every child in North America and Europe was vaccinated against measles. Before the vaccination, tens of thousands of kids were hospitalized with pneumonia or encephalitis because of measles, and about 500 children died of measles every year in the United States.

Hardly anyone in modern North America or Europe gets measles anymore, because most people have been vaccinated against it. But there is still no cure for measles if you do get it, and many people do still get measles – in modern Japan, for instance, most kids are not vaccinated against measles. Recently, as Americans forget how bad measles was, they have been neglecting to get vaccinations, so more and more children have been getting measles. More than a thousand American kids got measles in 2019. Be safe! Get vaccinated and don’t hang out with unvaccinated people.

Al Razi and Ibn Sina

Bibliography and further reading about the history of measles:

Main medicine page
Main science page