Image showing the Measles virus

Measles; history and prevention


Measles (caused by infection with the measles virus) is one of the world’s most contagious diseases; one case of measles can infect 12-18 unvaccinated people. Measles sufferers usually first experience fever, cough, runny nose and red eyes. These are followed a few days later by a red rash that starts on the head and spreads downwards over the face, neck and body. Measles can cause chest infections, fits, ear infections, swelling of the brain and brain damage. Complications result in hospitalisation in up to a quarter of cases, and can lead to lifelong consequences, including brain damage, blindness and hearing loss.

In Ireland, between 1948 and 1984 an average of over 5,000 cases were reported annually. The incidence declined dramatically after the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1985, from 10,000 cases in 1985 to 201 cases in 1987. Worldwide, measles vaccination resulted in an 80% decline in measles deaths between 2000 and 2018, preventing an estimated 21 million deaths in that time period.  

Even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available, the number of measles cases globally has risen significantly since 2016. Many countries are in the midst of sizeable measles outbreaks, with all regions of the world experiencing sustained rises in cases. The rise in the number of cases of measles is linked to a drop in vaccination uptake, where families are choosing not to have children vaccinated with the MMR vaccine. Reasons for this are varied, but may often stem from a sense of mistrust that is evident in many conversations about vaccination.   


‘Kitty O’Brien … and a little bow on top of her head’

Sister Marie Collins was born around 1920 in Limerick, to farming parents, and became a Presentation Sister and a teacher. She attended primary school in Monaleen, near where the University of Limerick is currently situated. Sister Collins was interviewed in 2000 by the Cork Folklore Project, and during the interview she reflects on the way in which certain memories from her early childhood stand out in isolation.

Speaking of a scene that comes to her memory with clarity, as an isolated incident, she says: ‘Now, I remember that, and I have no memory before or after but that stands out in my mind. Do you know, extraordinary things. I remember the first day I went to school, being around the teacher’s table, but I have no recollection of the night before or days afterwards… I’d love to write down memories without anything before or after, just things that struck me there and then.’

She goes on to recount one such vivid memory, of a girl who had been in Low Babies (Junior Infants, the first primary school class that children attend) with her:


Anon (2021). Annual Reports on Measles in Ireland – Health Protection Surveillance Centre. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 8 December 2022].

Sanz, C. 2021. ‘State at risk of losing status as having eliminated measles’. The Irish Times [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 8 December 2022].

Tanne, J.H, (2020). ‘Measles cases and deaths are increasing worldwide, warn health agencies’. BMJ, 371, p.m4450.