Measles Since 1940

August 3, 2010

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) website has a page listing the number of cases of measles, and the number of deaths from the disease, in the UK from 1940 to the present. The single measles vaccine was available from 1968 and the triple MMR vaccine was available from 1988. The effect that the availability of these vaccines had can be seen by looking at the reductions in incidence (number of cases) of measles – and the reductions in deaths from measles – that followed the introductions of these vaccines against measles/MMR.

The 10 years prior to the introduction of the single measles vaccine (1958-1967) brought 863 deaths and 4,120,936 notifications in the UK, while in the 10 year period from the introduction of the vaccine onwards (1968-1977) there were 292 deaths (a fall of 571 deaths, or 66%) and 1,600,979 notifications (a fall of 2,519,957, or 61%). This drop in measles cases dating from the introduction of the single measles vaccine saved over five hundred lives in ten years and prevented millions from becoming ill – sometimes seriously so. The complications associated with measles can be very serious indeed, as will be discussed below.

The last 10 years of the single measles vaccine saw 837,424 notifications of measles and the first 10 years following the introduction of MMR saw 106,210 notifications of the disease. This is a fall of 731,214 (87%). Deaths in the 10 year period 1979-88 were 140, while deaths in the 10 year period 1989-98 were 18 (a fall of 87%).

So, deaths and notifications both fell around 60-65% following the introduction of the single measles jab in 1968 and deaths and notifications each fell a further 87% following the introduction of the MMR triple vaccine in 1988.

In the period from 1940 to 1968 (the year the single measles vaccine was introduced), there were 11,337,267 notifications of measles infection – a rate of 390,940 per year over the 29-year period. In the period following the introduction of the single measles vaccine and leading up to the introduction of the MMR vaccine, there were 2,326,316 notifications, a rate of 116,316 per year over the twenty year period. Hundreds of thousands of people were spared the complications of measles every year following the introduction of the single measles vaccine – and a similar story is told by the figures detailing the incidence of measles following the introduction of the triple MMR vaccine.

There were 7,863 deaths in the period 1940-1968, with 5,687 occurring in the ’40s, 1,409 in the ’50s, and 767 from 1960-1968 (about 85 per year). Following the introduction of the single measles vaccine, deaths fell from 85 per year to about 20 per year (401 over twenty years of use). The introduction of MMR saw deaths fall still further to about 1.5 per year (27 over 9 years of use). From 85 deaths per year in the last nine years without vaccination, there was a drop to 20 deaths per year in the twenty years we used single measles vaccine and then the figures went down even further to just 1.5 deaths per year.

Graph showing cases of and deaths from measles in the UK since 1940

Measles in the UK - reports and deaths 1940-2008

The risks of suffering complications from measles infection, according to the NHS, are as follows:

  • Ear infection (1 in 20)
  • Pneumonia/bronchitis (1 in 25)
  • Convulsion (1 in 200)
  • Diarrhoea (1 in 6)
  • Hospital admission (1 in 100)
  • Meningitis/encephalitis (1 in 1,000)
  • Late onset: SSPE* (1 in 8,000 children under 2 years old)
  • Death (1 in 2,500-5,000)

*Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis

In fact, some recent outbreaks have seen higher rates of complications than the NHS figures given above. In an outbreak in Duisburg in Germany in 2006, there were 614 notifications of measles. The rates of complications were as follows:

  • Otitis media (middle ear infection) 19%
  • Pneumonia 7%
  • Encephalitis 0.6%, (3 patients, 2 of whom died)
  • Hospitalised 15%, median duration 6 days (range 2-97 days)

The rate of ear infections in the Duisburg outbreak was 1 in 5 rather than the expected 1 in 20, the proportion of those with measles who suffered from pneumonia was roughly double that predicted by the NHS figures, and death occurred in 1 in 307 cases, rather than 1 in 2,500-5,000 cases. This should illustrate the point that measles is far from being a trivial disease, but can actually be very serious indeed. Today. In what is referred to as the developed world.

The introduction of the MMR vaccine had seen Britain suffer an average of 109,429 fewer cases per year – over 19 years, that comes to about 2 million cases of measles. Following the scare that was perpetuated by the media, though, MMR vaccination went into decline. By 2003 MMR coverage was down to 82% – lower than is needed for herd immunity.

Measles cases in the UK 1996-2008

Measles cases in the UK 1996-2008


Following this drop in MMR uptake, there was (unsurprisingly) an increase in the number of cases of measles. The media now reports on outbreaks of measles across the country and on the serious side-effects – and deaths – that are being caused by this preventable disease. These outbreaks of illness and death show us why vaccination is so important.

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4 Responses to “Measles Since 1940”

  1. Al Capone Junior Says:

    Why does every page have the first word all caps? D’oh!

  2. Al Capone Junior Says:

    Both those graphs need to be bigger, especially the first one as it’s completely unreadable on my netbook. Second one isn’t as bad but could be bigger. I realize you can click on them but many will be too lazy for that and you don’t want to lose them.

    Also consider the complexity of the graph and the information contained therein verses the content and intended audience. I am not saying whether the first graph is good or bad (obviously it contains relevant info, but visually it’s a bit busy) so just consider it.


  3. […] the introduction of the triple vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella, the MMR, in 1988. We used The Vaccine Site as a reliable, evidence based and properly referenced […]


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