A History of Measles in the United States

Editor’s note: Today’s post is brought to you by Allegra Balmadier, guest contributor from MPH@GW, the online Master of Public Health program from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University.

Earlier this year, Washington state declared a public health emergency due to an outbreak of measles. This comes 20 years after the CDC declared that measles had been eliminated from the United States.

States like Washington and Oregon that allow nonmedical or philosophical vaccine exemptions pose a risk for higher infection and transmission rates.

At MPH@GW, we believe it’s critical for Americans to be educated on the history of measles and the ongoing public health concerns related to outbreaks and vaccination practices. We recently published a resource that depicts a visual timeline of the history of measles in the United States to help explain the evolution, elimination and resurgence of the disease. Read on for an overview, and see the timeline here.

Evolution and elimination

In 1765, the first measles outbreaks were reported in the United States due to the arrival of Europeans, and the disease devastated entire native populations.

By 1912, an average of 6,000 measles-related deaths were reported each year over the course of a decade, and led to the quest for a vaccine.

This is an excerpt of the visual timeline.

This is an excerpt of the visual timeline.

In 1954, John F. Enders and Dr. Thomas C. Peebles completed the first step to creating a vaccine: isolating the measles from the blood samples of infected students.

Over the next 37 years, a vaccine was created and licensed for use in the country, and led to a drastic decline in reported measles cases. In the 1980s, public health officials recommended that school children receive a second dose of the vaccine to achieve 97%+ immunity.

In 2000, measles was declared eliminated from the United States.


Eight years after elimination, 131 cases of measles across 15 states were reported. The resurgence was attributed to a higher rate of imported cases, and to an increase in pockets of unvaccinated communities.

The infection rate reached a new high of 600 cases in 2014.

According to the CDC, in 2019 there have already been 465 individual cases of measles confirmed (January 1 - April 4) in 19 states, the second-greatest number of cases reported in the country since elimination in 2000. Many of these cases have been concentrated in Washington, where individuals can opt out of vaccines for nonmedical or philosophical reasons.

Outbreaks can occur quickly: An individual with measles can infect up to 90 percent of people close to them. This is why vaccinating to achieve that 97 percent community immunity is incredibly important to protect yourself, as well as infants, senior citizens, people with weakened immune systems, or anyone who is medically unable to receive a vaccine.

Visit publichealthonline.gwu.edu to see our visual timeline of the history of measles in the United States.

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About the Author

Allegra Balmadier is a digital PR coordinator covering health at 2U Inc., supporting outreach for their public health and nursing graduate degree programs.