Dr. Marc Siegel: Measles kills 90,000 a year worldwide – Vaccine has saved 20 million lives

The measles vaccine – as part of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine series – is a life saver. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control reveal that the measles vaccine has saved the lives of more than 20 million people around the world since 2000.

If all the people whose lives were saved by the vaccine were gathered in one spot they’d exceed the population of China’s capital of Beijing, the second-largest city in the world.

But there is still work to be done, with close to 90,000 people still dying from measles every year worldwide, almost all of them unvaccinated.


Current Centers for Disease Control recommendations call for two doses of the measles vaccine, “the first after the first birthday (12 to 15 months) and the second at school entry (4 to 6 years).”

Actually MMR’s second dose can be given earlier.

Currently, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory requirements for the MMR vaccine for children before they are allowed to attend public school kindergarten. This is as it should be.

But unfortunately, these requirements are not always strictly enforced, are too easy to avoid for religious, medical, or personal reasons, and may not extend to all private or parochial schools.

This leads to too much opportunity for vaccine noncompliance and the resurgence of measles, which is brought to the U.S. from countries where measles is still more common.

As a young child in the 1960s, I remember waiting for measles to come, knowing that I would get it and be put to bed with a fever, red eyes and an angry red rash – and knowing that I would only get it once and be done with it. The only question was when, not if.

What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that measles can also cause brain swelling with potential long term development consequences in one out of a thousand patients, and serious pneumonia in one out of 20.

We didn’t think of this as young children, eager for any excuse to stay home from school. But I promise you that as a practicing physician, I think of it now.

The measles vaccine was first developed in 1963, and was combined into the measles mumps rubella vaccine in 1971.

Measles is highly contagious, meaning that 90 percent of those in close contact with a measles sufferer will get it themselves if unvaccinated. This explains the current measles outbreak in New York, with at least 112 patients in Rockland and Orange Counties and at least 55 cases in New York City.

Measles is highly contagious, meaning that 90 percent of those in close contact with a measles sufferer will get it themselves if unvaccinated.

And measles can be both rampant and deadly. The numbers of measles cases before the advent of the vaccine was staggering. In 1941, there were more than 890,000 cases reported in the United States.

From 1958 to 1962 just before the vaccine, the U.S. averaged about 503,000 cases and 432 death associated with measles each year. The CDC acknowledges a vast underreporting of measles cases before the vaccine and estimates that the number of cases was at least 3.5 million per year.


Vaccines are life savers that come under emotional attack far too easily and far too often. This has never been truer than for the measles vaccine, which counters a highly contagious and potentially debilitating or even deadly disease that has taken many millions of young lives around the world.

Don’t believe the scare tactics of vaccine opponents. The measles vaccine saves lives. We are finally winning the war against measles and we need to keep winning it.