19th Century Maps Visualize Measles in America Before the Miracle of Vaccines


This week, Rebec­ca Onion’s always inter­est­ing blog on Slate fea­tures his­tor­i­cal maps that illus­trate the toll measles took on Amer­i­ca before the advent of vac­cines. The map above brings you back to 1890, when measles-relat­ed deaths were con­cen­trat­ed in the South and the Mid­west. That year, accord­ing to the U.S. cen­sus, 8,666 peo­ple died from the dis­ease. Fast for­ward to the peri­od mov­ing from 1912 to 1916, and you’ll find that there were 53,00 measles-relat­ed deaths in the US.

Amer­i­ca con­tin­ued to strug­gle with the dis­ease, until 1962, when sci­en­tists mer­ci­ful­ly invent­ed a vac­cine, and the rate of measles infec­tions and deaths began to plum­met. The authors of “Measles Elim­i­na­tion in the Unit­ed States,” pub­lished in The Jour­nal of Infec­tious Dis­eases (2004), note that “Since 1997, the report­ed annu­al inci­dence [of measles] has been <1 case/1 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion”  — mean­ing that the dis­ease had been pret­ty much erad­i­cat­ed in the US. But not else­where. The authors go on to warn, “Measles is the great­est vac­cine-pre­ventable killer of chil­dren in the world today and the eighth lead­ing cause of death among per­sons of all ages world­wide.”  It does­n’t take much to deduce that if we dis­miss the sci­ence that has served us so well, we could see dread­ful­ly col­ored maps all over again. Except this time the dark orange will like­ly be con­cen­trat­ed on the left coast.

Find more his­tor­i­cal maps on Slate.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Roald Dahl, Who Lost His Daugh­ter to Measles, Writes a Heart­break­ing Let­ter about Vac­ci­na­tions

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