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Bottle of Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine

Bottle of Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine (Hailshadow, iStockphoto)

STEM in Context

Measles and Measles Prevention

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Summary

Learn about the measles virus, its impact and vaccination for prevention of the disease.

What is measles?

Measles virus (MeV) is a respiratory virus. It belongs to the paramyxovirus family. The virus is found specifically in humans. Measles is very contagious. It spreads when a healthy person comes into close contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. For example, if a person with measles coughs or sneezes, people nearby can get measles too. 
Measles often starts with a high fever. It usually starts 10 to 12 days after you are first exposed to the virus. Next, you’ll get a sore rash of red-brown spots all over your body. Measles puts your body at risk of other lung infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia. In rare cases, it can even cause encephalitis (an infection of the brain) and death.

Some of the symptoms and impacts of measles
Some of the symptoms and impacts of measles (adapted from an illustration by paveugra via iStockphoto).
Infographic - Text Version
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The symptoms of measles include a high fever and rash as well as a cough, runny nose and watery eyes. About 25 percent of people who get measles will be hospitalized. One out of every thousand people with measles will develop brain swelling due to infection and one to two out of one thousand people with measles will die.

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Fortunately, measles is preventable. In fact, in Canada, measles has been preventable for over 50 years. This is thanks to the measles vaccine. Let’s learn what the vaccine is, its history, and why it is so important. 

What is the history of the measles vaccine?

First, in 1954, two scientists isolated a strain of the measles virus. The scientists were named John Enders and Thomas Peebles. John Enders was a virologist and Thomas Peebles was a pediatrician.
Next, Enders developed a method of culturing the virus. Culturing is a term for growing and multiplying microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses. Once the virus was growing, scientists needed to find a way to attenuate the virus. In other words, they needed to weaken the virus’ ability to make people sick. To do this, Enders  developed a method called serial passaging
In the serial passaging method, the scientist first cultures the virus in one environment. Then, the scientist removes part of the virus and cultures it in a different environment. The scientist does this over and over again until the virus has mutated (changed) enough to be harmless. Then, scientists can use it to make a vaccine.
It took Enders and another virologist named Samuel L. Katz three years of work to create a measles strain that was safe for testing as a vaccine. Then, they spent seven more years testing the vaccine on animals and in clinical trials with humans. Finally, the measles vaccine was licensed.

Did you know? 

In 1954, scientists isolated a measles strain from a 13-year-old named David Edmonston. It is called the Edmonston strain and is still used in vaccines today.

The measles vaccine was introduced in 1963. Within a few years, it had just about wiped out measles in North America. By 2011, the measles rate in the United States was 99% lower than before the measles vaccine. Canada has also seen similar results. 

Reported incidence rate of confirmed measles cases, Canada 1924-2011*
Reported incidence rate of confirmed measles cases, Canada 1924-2011* (Source: CCDR. Guidelines for measles outbreak in Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada).

In 1971, the first combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine became available in the United States. It was developed by the American microbiologist Maurice Hilleman. This MMR vaccine is a trivalent vaccine, which means it contains three virus strains. It used to be a single dose, but the single dose didn’t always prevent measles. Since 1997, it has been a two-dose vaccine. In 2005, chicken-pox immunity was also added to the mix. Since then, children get the measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) vaccine.  

When do kids get the measles vaccine?

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that children should get their first dose of the measles vaccine between the ages of 12 months and 15 months. They should get their second dose after 18 months of age, but before they start going to school. 

Why is the measles vaccine important?

Some viruses can be treated with medication. That is not the case with measles. Most people will recover if they rest, eat healthy and drink plenty of fluids. But the best way to deal with measles outbreaks is to prevent them in the first place. 
How do you prevent measles outbreaks? With vaccination programs. Imagine a classroom. Almost all of the students students are vaccinated. One is not. But because all the other children have been vaccinated, the chances of the unvaccinated child getting measles goes down. This is true not only for classrooms, but for entire communities. If most people are vaccinated, then the chances of the people who aren’t vaccinated getting sick go down. This concept is called community immunity (or herd immunity).

This video explains the importance of herd immunity, or herd protection (2:46 min.).

 

Why do some people worry about the measles vaccine? 

Until 1997, the MMR vaccine was considered completely safe. But then, people began to worry that vaccines could cause autism. That’s because a doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent research paper claiming there was a connection between autism and vaccines.  Since then, many scientists have completely discredited (proven wrong) his theory. And Wakefield is not a practicing doctor anymore.
But this fraudulent study had some dangerous effects. It led to anti-vaccination campaigns by various celebrities. It also led to a lot of misinformation in the media. All of this affected the public’s trust of vaccines. Some parents, dubbed “anti-vaxxers,” have chosen to not vaccinate their children. Because of this, there have been measles outbreaks in some communities that have been measles-free for a long time.

What are the effects of the measles vaccine?

As you learned, the vaccine has been available since 1963. But measles is still one of the leading causes of death in children under five years old. This is especially true in countries that do not have strong health care systems. There have been mass vaccination campaigns in these countries. The campaigns have had a powerful effect. The number of deaths worldwide due to measles dropped by 80% between 2000 and 2017. Scientists continue to focus on eradicating, or completely eliminating, the disease. 

Time-lapse map showing how the use of the measles vaccine has spread around the world
Time-lapse map showing how the use of the measles vaccine has spread around the world (Source: World Health Organization).

 

Did you know? 

To date, only one human disease has been eradicated due to vaccination: smallpox.  

The measles vaccine is considered to be one of the greatest public health inventions of the 20th century. It will continue to be a key medical tool in controlling measles infections. 

Starting Points

Connecting and Relating
  • Have you had measles or do you know anyone that has had measles? Is so, what symptoms did you/they experience? 
  • Have you been vaccinated for measles? Why or why not?  
     
Connecting and Relating
  • Have you had measles or do you know anyone that has had measles? Is so, what symptoms did you/they experience? 
  • Have you been vaccinated for measles? Why or why not?  
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Why is it important to have many people in a community vaccinated to control incidences of measles?
  • What types of resources do you think have been used in trying to defend the safety of measles vaccination from anti-vaccine propaganda and promotion?
  • Do you think you can believe scientific information that is promoted by a celebrity? Why or why not? Who would you rely on for the best medical information? Why?  
     
Relating Science and Technology to Society and the Environment
  • Why is it important to have many people in a community vaccinated to control incidences of measles?
  • What types of resources do you think have been used in trying to defend the safety of measles vaccination from anti-vaccine propaganda and promotion?
  • Do you think you can believe scientific information that is promoted by a celebrity? Why or why not? Who would you rely on for the best medical information? Why?  
     
Exploring Concepts
  • What causes measles? Will antibiotics work to treat measles? What is the best way to treat measles?
  • How is measles spread? What steps can be taken to reduce the spread of measles?
  • What is herd immunity? How does herd immunity help reduce the incidence of contagious diseases like measles? 
     
Exploring Concepts
  • What causes measles? Will antibiotics work to treat measles? What is the best way to treat measles?
  • How is measles spread? What steps can be taken to reduce the spread of measles?
  • What is herd immunity? How does herd immunity help reduce the incidence of contagious diseases like measles? 
     
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • What is a clinical trial? What is the purpose of a clinical trial? (Note: This question may require additional research.)
  • How has fraudulent research affected the incidence of measles? How has this research impacted on the perception of vaccines in general?
  • Why can it take so much time for scientific discoveries, like new vaccines, to get into doctor’s hands to be used on patients? (Note: This question may require additional research.)  
     
Nature of Science/Nature of Technology
  • What is a clinical trial? What is the purpose of a clinical trial? (Note: This question may require additional research.)
  • How has fraudulent research affected the incidence of measles? How has this research impacted on the perception of vaccines in general?
  • Why can it take so much time for scientific discoveries, like new vaccines, to get into doctor’s hands to be used on patients? (Note: This question may require additional research.)  
     
Media Literacy
  • Have you seen or heard any recent reports in the media about measles? What information and messages were being reported? 
Media Literacy
  • Have you seen or heard any recent reports in the media about measles? What information and messages were being reported? 
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and embedded video can be used for Health teaching and learning related to viruses, vaccinations and public health. Concepts introduced include virus, measles, encephalitis, cultivating, attenuating, serial passaging, culturing, clinical trials, measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) and herd immunity. 
  • Before reading this article and viewing the embedded video, teachers could provide students with a Vocabulary Preview to engage prior knowledge and introduce new terms. Ready-to-use Vocabulary Preview learning strategy reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • After reading the article, teachers could have students complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy to consolidate their understanding of the concept of measles. Ready-to-use Concept Definition Web reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To further explore the issues surrounding vaccinating for measles and the concept of herd immunity, students could watch one or more of the videos from the Learn More section. Student could complete a Print-Video Venn Diagram learning strategy to compare the content and ideas presented in two of the videos. Ready-to-use Print Video Venn Diagram reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
     
Teaching Suggestions
  • This article and embedded video can be used for Health teaching and learning related to viruses, vaccinations and public health. Concepts introduced include virus, measles, encephalitis, cultivating, attenuating, serial passaging, culturing, clinical trials, measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) and herd immunity. 
  • Before reading this article and viewing the embedded video, teachers could provide students with a Vocabulary Preview to engage prior knowledge and introduce new terms. Ready-to-use Vocabulary Preview learning strategy reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • After reading the article, teachers could have students complete a Concept Definition Web learning strategy to consolidate their understanding of the concept of measles. Ready-to-use Concept Definition Web reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
  • To further explore the issues surrounding vaccinating for measles and the concept of herd immunity, students could watch one or more of the videos from the Learn More section. Student could complete a Print-Video Venn Diagram learning strategy to compare the content and ideas presented in two of the videos. Ready-to-use Print Video Venn Diagram reproducibles are available in [Google doc] and [PDF] formats. 
     

Learn more

Timeline of Measles

An interactive timeline from the History of Vaccines on the history of Measles

Measles Explained — Vaccinate or Not?

This video (5:33 min.) from Kurzgesagt explains how the immune system reacts to a measles infection. Good for senior level Body Systems and Homeostasis teaching and learning.

The Science of Anti-Vaccination (2015)

An in-depth video (9:15 min.) explanation SciShow from of the impact of choosing not to vaccinate. 

Why Vaccines Work (2015)

This video (7:22 min.) from It’s OK to be Smart explains how vaccines work, if they're safe, and why some people think there is a link between vaccines and autism.

References

Baker, J. P. (2011, September). The first measles vaccine. Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 128(3), 435-437. DOI:10.1542/peds.2011-1430

Government of Canada. (2013, October). Epidemiology of measles in Canada.

The History of Vaccines. (2018, January 25). Disease eradication.

Immunize Canada. (2019, April 18). Measles.

World Health Organization. (2017, April 28). Weekly epidemiological record.

World Health Organization. (2018, April). Measles.