Measles in a More Rational Bygone Era

For those who brush off a disease such as measles, that hospitalizes 1 in 4, as no big deal because it was a routine illness pre-vaccine I recommend watching a specific episode of the 3rd season television series Lark Rise to Candleford, which aired on the BBC from 2008-2011. 

This series catalogs the daily comings and goings of two towns in turn-of-the-century England, one of which is rural. Stories center on various aspects of daily life and are thoroughly interesting. One episode I recently watched brought up the issue of what measles could mean to a rural community in that era and it was devastating. 

Cases begin within a trickle and then an onslaught, reflecting the sheer power of this contagion to infect a naive population. Many townsfolk recounted prior bouts of measles which made children "fodder for the epidemics" and thinned families as not every case is uncomplicated. One character, who runs a post office out of her home and is caring for a sick child in the household, astutely moves activities to an alternate site. She matter of factly states she would not have the post office, which is the social focal point of the town, be exploited by the virus as a source of new victims.

One point which is heavily emphasized is the burden sick children place on caregivers as this incident occurs during harvest season when all hands must be on deck in order to have food for the winter. While this is an obvious issue in an agrarian population in the late 1800s, it is still a very instrumental fact today as is evident when a child gets sick and often requires a parent to take time away from productive endeavors until the child convalesces. The caregivers of children with influenza, for example, miss an average of 73 work hours.  

In the 4 current US measles outbreaks that have occurred thus far this year, there is no doubt that each of the children afflicted rightly requires special care from their parents--hospitalized or not--and such a requirement has ripple effects. This phenomenon, often overlooked, is another example of the life-enhancing aspect of vaccines as they not only diminish the burden of disease but minimize the impact on those who are not directly infected.

This crucial fact was grasped by the human race in a more rational era when vaccines against many childhood illnesses had not been developed and the toll of these scourges was a threat from which no one could escape.