Prairie measles outbreak prompted quarantine in 1937

Life was significantly disrupted when family members became sick and a 21-day quarantine period went into effect


The first words of Louise McLean’s diary for 1937 were: “Jan. 1 to 22: Quarantined for measles.”

She and her parents and siblings spent the last part of their Christmas holidays in isolation because her younger brother and sister had contracted measles from friends at school.

“Stanley is the worst — very thin. Varina seems quite recovered,” she wrote.

Stanley was 15 and Varina was 13. The disease is usually more severe in teenagers and adults than children.

Measles is a virus that originates in secretions of the nose and throat and transmission is by direct contact with an infected person. About 10 days after infection, probably in the last days of school before Christmas, Stanley and Varina began showing the first symptoms: fever for three or four days, followed by a hard, dry cough, red eyes and runny nose.

Their mother heard through the gossip grapevine of the disease spreading like wildfire over the Prairies and watched them closely for the next phase, a rash. She checked their mouths every day with a flashlight because that’s where the rash first shows up, in the form of tiny white spots, then spreads over the face and down the body. With the appearance of the rash, the two teenagers’ fever rose very high and continued until the spots had covered their body.

Stanley became too ill to eat, resulting in Louise mentioning how thin he became. They were contagious for four days before and up to five days after the rash appeared. When the spots reached their feet, their fever began dropping, their cough subsided and their eyes cleared.

The government stipulated a quarantine period of 21 days for families infected with measles. In some areas, a sign was given to the family to post outside their front door as a warning to anyone innocently dropping in unannounced. “Measles” it read in large letters and under that, the rules described the quarantine. The date it took effect was also stated and the health officer’s signature. There were no legal charges for disobeying the rule. The danger was so high, no one thought of putting their neighbours at risk.

Louise didn’t get it herself this time because she already had it as a child and had immunity. She wasn’t allowed to leave the house, though, by authority of the quarantine order.

For the McLean family that Christmas holiday, the customary meals shared with friends were postponed, but on the first day after their quarantine period ended, they invited two friends over for supper, “after due preparations,” she wrote, meaning they had some cleaning to do, clearing any possible lingering virus out of the house.

Louise was the only teacher in a rural one-room school called Millerdale in east-central Alberta. She returned to school Jan. 26.

“Thirteen pupils have convalesced from measles or flu and were in their customary places,” she wrote in her diary about her first day back in the classroom. The outbreak had passed, allowing most of the 15 enrolled students to return to school.

Before a measles vaccine was found, death from the disease was common due to complications resulting from the high fever.

From 1921 to mid-1950s, hundreds of people died in Canada, more than 800 in a 1926 outbreak. Epidemics occurred in two-three-year cycles with the highest incidence in 1935.

Most dreaded of all, encephalitis could result from the high fever, leading to serious conditions of the brain: coma, brain damage or paralysis. A more common complication was pneumonia and this too sometimes caused death.

A vaccine was first licensed in Canada in 1963, administered as a single dose to children at 12 to 15 months of age.

“But with only one shot,” says Dr. Frank Jagdis, in an interview for the Canadian Press, “there was a failure rate of about five percent, meaning one in 20 inoculated children didn’t make protective antibodies and were able to catch — and spread — the disease.”

In the 1980s, Canada and other countries implemented a two-dose immunization regimen, with a second shot administered between the ages four to six.

The vaccine is called MMR for measles, mumps and rubella, which is another term for German measles, given its name because it was first identified as a separate disease by doctors in Germany. Also showing a rash, rubella isn’t as serious a disease as measles to the general population but can be very dangerous to the fetus of a pregnant woman who is infected. Often the baby is born deaf or with other life-long impairment.

In the pre-vaccine days, it was hoped that boys contracted mumps while in childhood and mothers would often take their offspring to play with neighbours’ children who were infected, hoping to vaccinate them. Not a serious disease in children, if teenage boys or men contracted it, the aftermath would often result in sterility.

The MMR vaccine has almost completely eradicated these three diseases from Canada and we now live in a time of sublime ignorance, having almost forgotten the seriousness of them.

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