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.   


Anon (2021). Annual Reports on Measles in Ireland – Health Protection Surveillance Centre. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 May 2021].

Sanz, C. 2021. ‘State at risk of losing status as having eliminated measles’. The Irish Times [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 May 2021].

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


A contributing factor to the return of certain infectious diseases that have been eliminated or reduced in frequency is the fact that the memory of the effects of those diseases is fading. It is now impossible to appreciate the severe impact that communicable diseases had on individuals, families and communities in Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century. In the mid-1940s around 1,000 children died every year in Ireland from diseases such as whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, polio and tuberculosis. With the success of public immunisation programmes introduced in the 1950s, deaths from these diseases dropped to zero. By the twenty-first century, individual, family and community memory of the experience and impact of these diseases was fading. The aim of ‘Catching Stories’ is to explore how these memories could be useful in communicating how these diseases had an impact on communities, and at the same time to present oral testimony alongside a commentary from immunologist Dr. Beth Brint that explains the history of the disease in question.