BRYAN COUNTY HISTORY: Measles, the children’s epidemic

Bryan County Genealogy Library

While it’s true that thousands of Civil War soldiers died of the measles, it was still considered a “children’s ailment” for many decades after the war. Most cases were mild and most children recovered from the fever and rash. However, a few relapsed the next week, developed pneumonia, and died. And every two to four years there seemed to be a surge in cases and deaths that suddenly took on epidemic status. During epidemic years adults became infected and sometimes several members of one family succumbed to the disease. To complicate matters even more, the exact cause of measles eluded doctors and scientists for many years.

In 1899 the Caddo Herald reported: “Measles developed last week among the pupils at Mrs. Hamilton’s school and there were a number of children afflicted. The disease threatened to become epidemic in town, but is somewhat under control now.” That same year fourteen members of the Will Holly family in Durant contracted the disease, and one died. Henry Perry, of Cale, died of pneumonia following measles. He was thirty-five and left a wife and four children.

During the next decade there are accounts of measles throughout the county. “Grandma Williams” of the Jackson community, died of measles. W. H. Attaway of Caddo was confined to his room with measles. The Presbyterian College in Durant closed ten days early in 1907 “on account of measles in the dormitories and sickness in the faculty”. The June, 1910 the Civic Club meeting had low attendance “owing to measles”. It’s not clear if the members had the disease or they stayed home to care for sick children. There are also many reports of communities with “sick” or “very sick” residents, with no specific cause listed.

In 1912 measles became a “reportable disease”. After that, about 6,000 deaths were reported in the U.S. each year.

The twenties saw a gradual rise in cases and some newspaper articles seem to indicate that the public had developed a rather casual attitude about it. A few mothers purposely exposed their children to measles to “get it over with”, despite numerous warnings about the folly of doing so. Doctors reminded them that they could not predict which child would have a mild case and which might develop complications and die. In 1922 the health department issued these guidelines:

1. Measles is most contagious before the rash.

2. The germ is in the nose and mouth discharge.

3. The disease is most dangerous in children.

4. To avoid complications, get to bed when first you suspect you have measles, and stay there until the fever is gone.

5. Every case must be reported immediately to the health officer.

Matoy had an outbreak of measles in 1927. There were 7,259 cases in Oklahoma that year, and 169 deaths. The numbers fell slightly the next year. Only 6, 254 cases were reported,

with 28 deaths. By 1929 case numbers had fallen to 1,182, with only 18 deaths. However, authorities warned that the next cycle of the disease would be worse and in 1931 Cade students were absent from a county-wide 4H rally because of an “epidemic” of measles in their community.

The highly contagious nature of measles made it a health challenge for families, even as the scientific community tried and failed, and tried again, to develop a vaccine for it. They finally succeeded in 1963 and the vaccine was administered to 19 million Americans over the next twelve years. However, in 2015 there were 188 cases of measles reported in unvaccinated people.

Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.