Measles has been around for at least 1500 years according to writings found in China, India and the Mediterranean basin (Fetter et al., 1996).
But this virus also has a long history in South Africa. First appearing in Cape Town in 1789 the virus took hold, leading to waves in 1806-7 1839, 1852, 1861, and 1871 (Fetter et al., 1996). During this time, infections were relatively uncommon but deadly (Fetter et al., 1996).
Over the next 50 years, the virus slowly spread east to cause epidemics in places like King Williams Town. A place which suffered 6 years of Measles waves. Although it should be noted that as the virus became more common, it became less deadly (Fetter et al., 1996).
The Anglo-Boer War
So when the Anglo-Boer war happened, the deadliness of the virus shocked everyone (Fetter et al., 1996). At the time, there was wild speculation on what was killing these prisoners, with rumours even circulating that they had been poisoned by the British military (Fetter et al., 1996).
Fetter et al., (1996), examined primary sources that, to their knowledge, have not been previously consulted. They found that, measles was the leading cause of death in camps that were established for Boer and African civilians in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State (Fetter et al., 1996). Based on the death registers, measles accounted for at least 30% of all deaths in these camps (Fetter et al., 1996).