1908 Measles Outbreak in North Adams

A few things catch the eye as one looks through the Report of the Board of Health of North Adams from 1917. For one, the causes of death. July in particular seemed to be an odd month—“acute indigestion” was the demise of four North Adams residents during the dog days of summer, along with one local losing their life due to an “accidental cannon discharge.” On another page, contagious disease cases and deaths are counted from 1917 and earlier years. Diphtheria, Chicken Pox, Tuberculosis—most of these range from 0 cases to 100, the highest numbers going to diseases like Typhoid Fever and Diphtheria. A number jumped out at me though: 728. Seven-hundred-and-twenty-eight. This number came under the 1908 line, in the section for measles cases. According the United States census in 1910 that would have been about 3% to 4% of the population of North Adams at the time.

In total, 830 cases of contagious disease were reported to the Department of Health in 1908, most of them being from measles—this is in comparison to 141 contagious disease cases in 1907. Two deaths occurred because of the disease itself, but other deaths occurred because of the respiratory complications measles brings about in the body. The main complication of measles is tuberculosis. In 1908 there were 26 cases of tuberculosis, compared to 14 in 1907. Of these 26, 15 died. Before a measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, 2.6 million deaths occurred a year from the disease and the complications it leads to.

The measles virus is a part of the paramyxovirus family. Also in this family are parainfluenza virus, the mumps virus, and the respiratory syncytial virus. The virus is passed on like many others—through the air or through direct contact. However, unlike other viruses, there is no evidence of measles occurring in any animal other than humans.

Infected North Adams residents would have started to feel feverish about 10 to 12 days after being exposed to the virus. The high fever itself would last from 4 to 7 days. Then the telltale signs of measles would set in—runny nose, cough, red and watery eyes, and small white spots develop on the inside of the cheeks. These symptoms last for several days, but once those days had passed a new symptom would appear. A rash begins popping up on the upper neck and face. The rash will spread across the body within 3 days, and last up to a week. Best case scenario, someone exposed to measles will be sick for about 7 days, but symptoms can remain for 18 days.

Most deaths from the virus occur for those under five and over twenty. The most common complications are pneumonia and an ear infection. In severe cases, measles can lead to encephalitis, blindness, and diarrhea. Measles, like chickenpox and smallpox, leaves its host with lifetime immunity, so once you catch it, you cannot catch it again. Diseases like this tend to make their rounds because of this—there will be a substantial amount of a town or city’s population that will fall ill, meaning a large portion will have immunity if they get through the sickness, but once the population begins to grow again with those not exposed to a virus, the disease returns. Looking again at the 1917 annual report, one can see the pattern that every couple of years an outbreak will occur after a low case year.

The bulk of the cases came from December 1907 (151 cases), January 1908 (399 cases), and February (142 cases). By May there was only one case a month, and by August no cases would be reported for the rest of the year. There were 1,660 quarantine inspections because of the outbreak, which caused the Department of Health to go over $1,460 of their $7,000 yearly budget. According to the report, the overdrawn money was also due to a recent law which made impoverished citizens suffering from a contagious disease the charge of the Department of Health. A place to comprehensively treat contagious diseases had yet to be established in North Adams at this time.

In the 1908 report, the Board of Health kept demanding a place be built where they could actually treat contagious diseases like measles, scarlet fever, and diphtheria. They had received one new building and technological aid in 1907, and that was a bacteriological laboratory. They Board of Health claimed that it saved them time in diagnosing, and though their budget ran over with the quarantines, it would have overdrawn far more without the lab. To create the lab, it cost the city $100.00 in 1907. The lab may have been a part of the North Adams hospital when it was made, as there is no evidence of it being a standalone building.

In their 1917 report, the Board of Health pushed for more funding from the city to prevent further outbreaks of disease in the city. They claimed that the city had been lucky, until 1908, that there had not been a major contagious epidemic—“…what shall we do when our turn comes? How many times the realization of the almost criminal carelessness of this city in not providing a place for the treatment of contagious diseases has been forced upon this Board, which must meet them when they appear.” The Board of Health actually advocated for much more than what they would they would need to treat the city, including new school buildings, a better sewage system, and a playground for the children in school and the factories.

A vaccine for measles would finally be licensed in 1963, so in 2016 America we tend not to worry much about measles outbreaks like this. However, cases of contagious disease thought to be well under control seem to have been appearing in the last couple of years due to the anti-vaccination movement. These new cases tend to mostly be in children as most teens and adults are vaccinated.

Adapted from the original article in Hoosac Trails: The Journal of the North Adams Historical Society and Museum of History and Science, Volume XXV, Number IV (June 2016)