Measles - a short history lesson

The UK Health Security Agency recently issued a press release, warning that too few children were vaccinated against measles. With the benefits of vaccination and a developed healthcare system, it is easy to forget that measles was often a fatal disease for young children. Table 1 shows just how deadly measles was at the start of last century without vaccination:

Table 1. Deaths under 5 years old in England Wales. Source: Own calculations using ONS data.

YearDeaths due
to all causes
Deaths due
to measles
Measles deaths
as percentage
1901 201,747 8,440 4.2%
1902 185,024 12,065 6.5%
1903 180,340 8,610 4.8%
1904 199,678 11,507 5.8%
1905 174,258 10,383 6.0%

Table 1 shows that thousands of under-5s died of measles annually in England & Wales. How many under-5s died of measles in 2020? Just the one.

One reason for this transformation is of course vaccination, as a measles vaccine has been available since 1963. Indeed, it is so effective that:

During 20002018, measles vaccination prevented an estimated 23.2 million deaths [worldwide] making measles vaccine one of the best buys in public health.

WHO (2022)

Unsurprisingly, measles returns quickly when vaccination rates slide, as shown during the 2019 epidemic in Samoa. The Government of Samoa had to declare a state of emergency and conduct a rapid programme of vaccination. Of the 2,435 under-5s infected with measles, 61 died, giving a case-fatality rate for small children of 2.5% (source: own calculation using data from Government of Samoa press release 23).

Get your children jabbed now.


Government of Samoa (2019), press release 23, archived here.

ONS, 20th Century mortality files, accessed on 1st February 2022.

ONS, 21st Century Mortality Files, accessed on 1st February 2022.

UK Health Security Agency (2022), "Around 1 in 10 children starting school at risk of measles", press release, 1st February 2022.

WHO (2022), Measles factsheet, accessed 2nd February 2022.




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Stephen Richards
Stephen Richards is the Managing Director of Longevitas