10 000 years of Measles: South Africa

Measles In The Ancient World

The measles virus likely evolved from the ancestors of the modern canine distemper and/or rinderpest viruses, which dates back to when humans started domesticating dogs and cattle in the Middle East about 10,000 years ago (Retief, & Cilliers, et al., 2010). Measles probably became a human disease in Mesopotamia around 4000 years ago and gradually spread as civilizations evolved (Retief, & Cilliers, et al., 2010).

According to some experts, measles reached the Indus civilization in India at around 2500 BC, Asia Minor and the Levant 1000 years later, and the Egyptian and Ganges civilizations by 1000 BC (Retief, & Cilliers, et al., 2010).

When measles infects a group of people that aren’t big enough to constantly infect new people or don’t travel to new populations often enough, the disease can die out after having infected every one that is susceptible (Fetter et al., 1996).

By 1000 BC, although measles had spread to Italy and the Greek city-states, but the local population was too small for them to have their own strain of the disease (Retief, & Cilliers, et al., 2010). It was only in the 1st century BC that Rome’s population had grown big enough (Retief, & Cilliers, et al., 2010).

China: 1500 Years Ago

Measles has been around for at least 1500 years according to writings found in China, India and the Mediterranean basin (Fetter et al., 1996). Ge Hong, a renowned 4th century Chinese physician, identified the virus and named it “dou chong” or “bean-like macules” (Fetter et al., 1996). He observed that it could be transmitted by air and posed a serious threat to young children (Fetter et al., 1996).

Ge Hong’s findings are documented in historical medical texts, such as the Huangdi Neijing (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon) and the Shanghan Lun (Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders), along with many other references to measles (Fetter et al., 1996).

For centuries, measles was endemic in China and caused periodic outbreaks that killed many people, particularly children under the age of five (Zhang et al., 2012). This was an issue in this country right up until the 20th century, as measles was one of the leading causes of death for this age group in China (Zhang et al., 2012).

Prior to the use of the measles vaccine (MCV) in 1965, it’s estimated that there were 7.5 million cases and 600,000 deaths annually in China due to measles (Zhang et al., 2012).

South Africa’s Measles Outbreak: The March 31st Update

Unfortunately, South Africa is continuing to see a surge of measles cases since the October 2022 outbreak. Get the latest news in an easy-to-understand way.

The History Of Measles In South Africa

Measles has a long history in South Africa. It first appeared in Cape Town in 1789, leading to waves in 1806-7, 1839, 1852, 1861, and 1871, during which infections were rare but incredibly deadly (Fetter et al., 1996).

In 1858, a report was published that described two outbreaks of an epidemic that occurred at the Genadendal mission in the Western Cape (Fetter et al., 1996). The first outbreak was in 1839, and it caused 54 deaths out of 1,200 cases, which is a death rate of 45 per 1,000 cases (Fetter et al., 1996). The second outbreak was in 1852, and it caused 69 deaths out of 2,000 cases, which is a death rate of 34 per 1,000 cases. This second outbreak accounted for almost two-thirds of all deaths at the mission that year (Fetter et al., 1996).

Over the next 50 years, the virus slowly spread east and caused epidemics in places like King Williams Town, which suffered from six years of measles waves (Fetter et al., 1996). It should be noted that as the virus became more common in South Africa, it became less deadly (Fetter et al., 1996).

Measles & The Anglo-Boer War

The Boer War happened between 1899 and 1902 in South Africa. The conflict involved the British Empire and the two Boer Republics – the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. They were fighting over control and influence of the region, particularly after the discovery of gold in the Boer territories.

During the Boer War, the British military authorities created concentration camps to house civilians who had been forced out from their homes due to the conflict. These camps were primarily used to house Boer women and children, as well as black South Africans who had been removed from their homes by the British.

The conditions in the camps were terrible. There was overcrowding, a lack of food, poor sanitation, and not enough medical care. Children were particularly vulnerable in these conditions, and it is estimated that around 26,000 Boer children died in the camps, along with around 20,000 black South Africans.

During the Anglo-Boer war, the deadliness of the Measles virus shocked everyone (Fetter et al., 1996). Reports from the burgher camps showed extremely high death rates. These reports were widely circulated in England, but lacked detailed statistics about what was causing these deaths. Rumours were circulating that Boer women and children had been poisoned or mistreated by the British military (Fetter et al., 1996); but no one knew for certain.

Fetter et al., (1996), examined primary sources that, to their knowledge, have not been previously looked at. 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 and for at least 40% of children’s deaths (Fetter et al., 1996).

When this devastating war ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging, the British may have won, but a legacy of bitterness remained (Grundlingh, 1999). Something that measles had a significant but hidden part in.

South Africa’s Measles Vaccination Campaign Explained

Measles is spreading in South Africa. The plan to address this issue can be confusing, read our easy-to-understand explanation now.

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