The recent upsurge in measles cases in Florida and the US in general has doctors and public health officials scratching heads. Apparently, there is a big difference in infection rates when the percentage of children who receive the MMR—Measles, Mumps, Rubella—vaccinations drops from 95 % to 91%; transmission among the unvaccinated spreads more rapidly, and a few—stats say 3 %–of the vaccinated still get a mild case of the disease. That, in my understanding is in a nutshell what is happening in Florida and threatening elsewhere as measles cases in 2024 rise.

Measles vaccines are relatively new, becoming developed and widely available in the 1950s and 1960s. I had measles when I was five or six, in the 1940s. And now, with parents no longer around to ask, and without checking very old Minnesota medical records, I can’t say whether I had “measles,” or “rubella,” which is also called “German Measles.” What I can remember is that it was serious stuff, because I was kept in my parents’ darkened room for days, darkened because bad things happened to the eyes of children who did not follow a prescribed regime of darkness, hot soup and plenty of liquids. I don’t know where my parents slept when I was sick and confined to their bed. Mine was a single wide thing up a steep, narrow set of stairs on a second floor that sloped from adult head heights in the middle to the floors on the sides. Maybe they took turns sleeping, or one took the couch.

Parents had tough choices regarding childhood diseases in the 1940s, but there was general wisdom about dealing with some of the majors; with chickenpox and mumps, planned exposure was the rule. When one of them hit the school, mothers rapidly traded information and arranged “visits” of the uninfected with the infected, so as to get the disease over and done with. They—parents—had immunities from their own childhood exposures, so dutifully attended to ours. Measles—and rubella—were different, and to be avoided at all costs. Isolation in dark rooms and careful attention to blankets, towels, and tissues were, in my recollection, parents’ tools in dealing with them.

Vaccines of all kinds have been in the news—and their efficacy has become a point of political division—since the beginning of the Covid outbreak. At least two people I know—and quite possibly a handful more—died refusing the Covid vaccine; vax denier Robert Kennedy Jr. has launched a presidential campaign; and a few health professionals and politicians, like the folks in Florida, continue to mix vaccine effectiveness with parents’ choice in their statements to the public. Which means that Covid vaccine deniers have joined an old but relatively small group of vax deniers who linked the MMR vaccines to autism in children and are waging battle on the researchers and health professionals who promote any vaccines.

My bet is that the rate of deniers in American Indian country is small. I know from friends who have specific stories about family members’ reports of the 1919 flu epidemic that most tribal people take Covid seriously. And they did and do take Covid seriously. We all know now that white European diseases caused more actual deaths than wars did between Natives and settlers in the early days of European intrusion. Less well known are the stories of diseases weakening tribes and causing intertribal war as the devastated attacked neighbors to swell their depleted numbers. Diseases reduced Willamette Valley tribal populations by 30-50 percent, and had some similar effects on Plateau tribes—before they met Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark estimated 6,000 Nez Perce in 1805. Maybe there were 9,000—or 12,000!

Measles was the proximate cause of the Whitman killings in the Walla Walla valley in 1847. The missionary Whitman, who was an advertised physician, could not stop the spread of measles across the Cayuse population. Arrival of the disease has been blamed on Oregon Trail immigrants, although recent scholarship suggests that a party of Cayuse who had gone to California looking for horses and cattle had come back with measles.

Whitman could not cure them, nor could the Indians’ sweats and natural healings. Missionaries to the far north had better luck with isolation, heavy liquids, and blankets. But not Whitman, who probably did not have the personal relations with tribal members that would have bought their acceptance of such suggestions. So, Cayuse numbers were drastically reduced, the Indians passed a death warrant on Whitman, and five Cayuse Chiefs were hung after a subsequent war.

I grew up with history the story of kings and queens, emperors and presidents, generals and popes. The plague—the “Black Death”—that hit Europe in the 1300s and quickly killed 25-50 million people, got little notice in our textbooks. And the impact of European diseases on Native Americans was buried in the stories of brave European refugees seeking freedom and prosperity in the New World, of Westering migrants doing the same across the continent.

In college, I did come across one book, “Rats, Lice and History,” published in 1935 by biologist Hans Zinsser on the subject of typhus, a disease on which he performed significant research. Zinsser frames the book as a biography of the infectious disease, tracing its path through history. It wasn’t taught in history classes.

A similar book about measles might take its journey across the seas and to Whitman’s mission, through a vaccination phase, and now to Florida, where politicians and parents—not doctors—vie for its control and contributions to current affairs.

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