Measles is on the increase again in Britain – with the number of cases in England and Wales rising from 990 in 2007 to at least 1,348 last year. The Health Protection Agency says the reason is that fewer people had their children vaccinated because of a scare, which most doctors now discount, over the MMR vaccine.
In 2006, a 13 year old boy became the first person to die from the virus in the UK in 14 years, and he had been taking an immunosuppressive drug. Across the world, though, the disease can be deadly and in 2007, the World Health Organisation said it had killed nearly 200,000. That in itself was a huge decrease from the figure for the year 2000 of 750,000.
As Europeans took over the world from the fifteenth century onwards, the measles virus was one of the deadliest weapons they carried with them. It was estimated to have killed two million Mexican Indians in the 1600’s, and it also cut a swath through the North American Indians. In 1847, the victims were the Cayuse Indians who lived in Oregon and Washington, and soon after they were defeated in war and confined to a reservation.
Between 1875 and 1911 three epidemics hit Fiji, after the virus was thought to have been brought to the islands by a leading local dignitary who had been to Australia to discuss handing them over to the British. The first and deadliest outbreak killed perhaps 40,000 out of a population of 150,000. The two later epidemics tended to kill young people who had been born since the previous visitation, and so had not acquired immunity.