As parts of North America struggle to contain a completely unnecessary measles epidemic, it's important to remember what life was like prior to the onset of vaccines. These maps paint a grim picture of the past — and where we ourselves may be headed in the future.

As Slate's Rebecca Onion reports, these statistical maps were compiled by the U.S. Census Office.


"Experiments in data visualization, the atlases are modern in their scope and ambition," she writes. "Since they were compiled in a time before the availability of vaccines for most childhood diseases (with smallpox being the exception), they are a good record of the former pervasiveness of measles."

In fact, as noted by the CDC, "Nearly everyone in the U.S. got measles before there was a vaccine, and hundreds died from it each year. Today, most doctors have never seen a case of measles." The vaccine was introduced in 1963.

It's true that most doctors have never seen it — which is why signs of measles now elude young doctors.


Looking at the 1890 map above, Onion points out that you can see a pattern of measles mortality that aligns quite nicely with the course of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, a striking indication of how transportation conduits worked to proliferate the disease. Today, we don't worry so much about rivers as we do airports. But now we also have to worry about a different kind of "vector" — those who aren't immunized.

Here's an earlier map from 1880:

Below, this CNN map shows the extent of the current epidemic. Unlike the maps above, these numbers reflect infections and not mortality. To this you can add the four measles cases that have been confirmed in Toronto.

Click on the historical maps to make them bigger, or see their pages on the David Rumsey Map Collection site. And be sure to check out more at Slate, including a neat clock-like visualization showing death rates from measles for each month of the year 1900.

Top image: Henry Gannett and Fletcher W. Hewes for the United States Census Office, "45. Deaths, whooping cough, measles."Scribner's statistical atlas of the United States, 1883; Inset image: Henry Gannett for the United States Census Office, from page titled "41. Deaths from known causes." Statistical Atlas of the United States, based upon results of the Eleventh Census (1890), 1898.

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