Measles Outbreaks in Alaska’s Historic Newspapers

Black and white photograph of a Tlingit woman holding a candle and sitting against a wall next to a young Tlingit Indian with severe sores showing infection.
Caption from photograph: Tlingit woman holding a candle and sitting against a wall next to a young Tlingit Indian with severe sores showing infection. From the Winter and Pond Photograph Collection, Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Dear readers,

It’s hard to avoid the alarming reports of measles outbreaks in the United States and worldwide. Vaccines have been proven to prevent the spread of measles; the MMR (measles- mumps-rubella) vaccine, which needs to be administered twice to children, has an effectiveness rate of 97%. Thanks to an effective vaccination program, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared measles eliminated in the United States in 2000.

Nineteen years later, however, measles cases are back are on the rise. The staggering amount of false information about vaccine safety has led to outbreaks of this preventable disease, particularly among vulnerable populations. Measles kills roughly 2 in 1,000 cases and leads to pneumonia in about 6% of cases. At present, there are 555 confirmed cases of measles this year alone in 20 states, as well as a 300% increase in measles worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

The following news items are just a handful of the hundred of measles-related stories reported in Alaska’s historic newspapers. A commonality among these stories are reports of children and indigenous populations disproportionately affected by the virus. In 1900, the measles virus devastated Yup’ik, Iñupiat, and Iñupiaq Alaska Native populations.

The Measles: The measles have afflicted several Alaskan towns quite severely during the past two or three months. Sitka has suffered along with the rest. Many pupils of the white and native public schools and the Russian Orphanage had them and there are at present several cases among our cottages. As a result of the measles there have been several deaths in the native village and one-- that of Matilda McKay in the cottages. Matilda was one of our day pupils, the daughter of our band leader, George McKay. She was a bright little girl and will be sadly missed in her home and among her playmates. Until Feb 21 we had no measles among our 105 boarding pupils. Then two boys, Andrew Hanson and Newton Kasko fell ill. They were taken to the hospital where they later developed full fledged measles. They are both rapidly recovering now. We have had no other cases as yet. We are very thankful and hope all other pupils may escape being caught.
Image credit: The Thlinget. [volume] (Sitka, Alaska), 01 Feb. 1909. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn94050023/1909-02-01/ed-1/seq-3/>
Measles Causes Deaths in Peninsula Villages: An epidemic of measles is raging on Kodiak and Afognak Islands and a number of deaths are reported. This morning the Governor's office received the following telegram from W. J. Erskine, a merchant of Kodiak: "Measles epidemic spreading outside the village of Afognak. 110 cases and three deaths at Karluk. There have been 10 deaths and 20 cases at Kagnik 10 days ago and several cases at Ouzinkie. Many are destitute." The telegram was immediately transmitted to the Secretary of the Interior and a recommendation was made that a revenue cutter be dispatched with the necessary supplies, or that the United States Marshal at Valdez be authorized to furnish provisions, fuel and medical aid.
Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 07 Nov. 1913. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1913-11-07/ed-1/seq-1/>
Valdez Should Quarantine. During the past year an epidemic of measles has visited almost every coast town in Alaska except Valdez. At the present time Cordova, Douglas and Ketchikan are suffering from this unwelcome visitor, and in the latter place the disease has assumed a most virulent type. That Valdez has not been visited by a scourge of measles ere this is due to no precautions taken to prevent its being brought here for apparently no steps have been taken to quarantine against the town in which the disease prevails. Residents of the towns where the disease is prevalent come and go from Valdez with freedom, and there is offered every opportunity to bring the disease here. Some steps should be taken by the authorities in connection with the boat officials to prevent the disease getting a foothold here. At this season of the year an epidemic of measles would undoubtedly cause many deaths. A few years ago Valdez had an experience with an epidemic of whooping cough, the result of which was sufficiently sad to warrant every precaution against any other epidemic which may endanger the lives of our little ones.
Image credit: Valdez daily prospector. (Valdez, Alaska), 19 Jan. 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060264/1917-01-19/ed-1/seq-2/>
All the Eskimos at the mouth of the MacKenzie river have died of measles. The deaths numbered two hundred. Bishop Breynat, of the Catholic church, who recently reached Dawson, brings the news. Two small steamers are crushed in the ice on the upper MacKenzie.
Image credit: Douglas Island news. (Douglas City, Alaska), 13 April 1904. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84021930/1904-04-13/ed-1/seq-1/>

 

For everyone’s sake, make sure your children are up-to-date on vaccinations.

Let’s leave measles in the past.

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