Top 25 things vanishing from America: # 5 -- Mumps and measles

This series explores aspects of America that may soon be just a memory -- some to be missed, some gladly left behind. From the least impactful to the most, here are 25 bits of vanishing America.

Despite what's been in the news lately, the measles and mumps actually, truly are disappearing from the United States. In 1964, 212,000 cases of mumps were reported in the U.S. By 1983, this figure had dropped to 3,000, thanks to a vigorous vaccination program. Prior to the introduction of the measles vaccine, approximately half a million cases of measles were reported in the U.S. annually, resulting in 450 deaths. In 2005, only 66 cases were recorded.

Right now, Last summer there was an outbreak of the highly contagious measles among 127 people, at last count, in 15 states. Meanwhile, auto racer E.J. Viso just had was forced to to withdraw from the Firestone Indy 200 at Nashville after being diagnosed with the mumps. But unless there's something really weird going on that we don't know about yet, the measles and mumps -- once practically a rite of passage for every schoolkid to get -- are on the decline.

Even as far back as the 1800s, it wasn't considered a big deal if a child got the measles or mumps, and many parents were relieved when they did come down with it. Mumps and measles were considered children's diseases because they usually weren't severe or fatal, and best of all, for the rest of their lives, the kids would be immune. For adults who were unlucky enough to get the measles or mumps, the diseases were much more painful and could be killers. The mumps particularly, with its swelling of the throat, could literally strangle a grown-up. The measles' trademark, of course, involves getting ugly spots appearing all over your skin.

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Not that it was a holiday for a schoolkid when they got the mumps or measles -- kids were often quarantined to their bedrooms. Still, it was considered such a non-event when children got measles and mumps that back in the day, as a 1945 Time magazine article reports, at a small Manhattan school, when an eight-year-old student was exposed to mumps, the staff decided to let the exposed students keep coming to class. Then all of the kids could hopefully catch the disease and have it over with.

The school sent a letter to the children's parents, explaining their plan, and the parents and children's doctors gave unanimous approval.

Unfortunately, the plan worked a little too well. Nobody had thought about the adults. One teacher was soon out of school, battling the disease for two weeks, and ten unlucky parents caught the mumps. Time quoted the Journal of the American Public Health Association, which concluded, "It is doubtful if any further epidemics will be sponsored by the school."

The mumps and measles are diseases that can keep kids from learning in school and grown- ups from earning a living, and in a worst-case scenario, they can cause death. It's a very good thing that vaccinations have almost put measles and mumps out of business, at least in the United States. Besides, when it comes down to it, being sick is nothing to sneeze at.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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