Measles: A short history of a deadly disease

One step closer to an HIV vaccine
In South Africa, children should be vaccinated against measles at nine & 18 months
In South Africa, children should be vaccinated against measles at nine & 18 months

When measles first appears in the 10th century writings of a Persian physician, people still believe it is passed from mother to child. Children’s itchy red spots, it is believed, are a manifestation of menstrual blood their mothers were unable to shed during pregnancy.

By the 1600s, this theory was rejected. However, French obstetrician Francois Mauriceau did strongly recommend that patients not be placed in rooms with red curtains. Green would be better, he argued. It would be roughly 300 years before the virus that causes measles was discovered.

In a 1979 lecture on the history of the virus, J.H.M Axton recalled his own experience with measles as a child. A green cap figures prominently although Axton does not say why:

“My main recollection is of a darkened room in which I was nursed and later of being forced to wear a cap with green lining, especially bought for the occasion.”

Today, there remains no specific treatment for the viral infection.

Highly contagious, the measles virus lives in an infected person’s mucus in their throat or nose and transmission occurs through sneezing or coughing. Unlike other viruses that die quickly when exposed to air, like HIV, measles can live up to two hours on infected surfaces outside the body. Infection results in a runny nose, fever and cough. Within five days, patients develop an itchy rash.

Complications can include pneumonia, encephalitis or brain infection, and diarrhea. Among children who are malnourished and vitamin A deficient, one in four who contract the disease will likely die from it. In rare cases, children who survive measles will develop a fatal degenerative disease, called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, nearly a decade after being infected.

Read more from Health-e’s investigation into vaccination in South Africa “Shots in the dark?” as part of the African Story Challenge:


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