Measles Has Been Eliminated In The Americas, So Now's The Time To Learn The Disgusting History Of Its Treatment
The World Health Organization released an extraordinary bulletin this week: measles has been completely eliminated in the Americas. That's right — from Canada all the way down to the bottom tip of South America, the only outbreaks of measles have been from foreign travelers bringing the disease in; people in the Americas no longer have a measles problem in and of themselves. It's a whopping victory for the measles vaccination campaign, and demonstrates the true power of modern science. Measles isn't just a scratchy inconvenience; the Center for Disease Control points out that it can also, in rare cases, be deadly, particularly for children, and can also cause everything from deafness to serious brain damage. Medicine: it works, people. But how far, exactly, have we traveled to get to this point?
The measles vaccine was an American development: a collection of Massachusetts scientists first isolated the measles virus in 1954, and managed to transform it into a vaccine by 1968. This makes it particularly fitting that it's the American continent that gets the first measles-free elimination sticker of all the world's locations. While we missed the CDC's original goal to eliminate measles from America by 1982, it's still a massive achievement. And it's highlighted by just how many bizarre "cures" and attempted treatments for measles have existed over the centuries as human beings struggled to figure out how the disease operated, and how to stop it. Some are pretty benign; a Water Cures Journal from Boston in 1851 recommends drinking pints of cold water, which is as inoffensive as it's ineffective. But others got a lot weirder.
1. Be Covered In The Blood Of A Pigeon
Measles are one of the diseases for which we have no ancient sources telling us of cures, as it was an epidemic-based disease and many of the authorities on ancient Greek medicine, like Hippocrates, didn't necessarily witness an outbreak. Even as humanity approached the Middle Ages, measles was little understood, and habitually conflated with smallpox, another disease altogether. In "The Rose Of Medicine", a treatise on medicine from the 1300s, the writer John of Gaddesden confuses the two, then outlines where he thinks they come from, and suggests some cures. Be prepared, because things are about to get a bit icky.
Gaddesden, like many medicinal authorities, thought measles was a product of excess blood in the body, caused by having sex with a woman on her period or eating foods in the wrong order (garlic and onions on top of fish, for example, or far too many figs, both of which would "expel matter" to the surface of the skin). The way to get rid of this? Soak a sheet in figs, parsley and lentils, and then cover the skin of the afflicted person with the blood of a "warm" animal, "such as a chicken, pigeon of sheep." Then wrap them in the sheet, in the hope that the blood and the sheet will combine to eliminate the suffering. Charming.
2. Eat Violets And Sulfuric Acid
Measles in the 15th century in England was still consistently mixed up with smallpox, but domestic advice books were ready for it, up to a point. They were also, apparently, ready to main or kill themselves for a cure. A collection of measles cures from the Tudor-Stuart period include a pretty benign one that involves treacle, crushed wallflowers and saffron, but had to be taken "from the point of a knife" three times a day; and that's not even the worst of it. Another one starts well, recommending two ounces of "julep of violets" and four ounces of rosewater...but then ruins all of its possible healthful effects by adding four grains of "oil of vitriol". That's sulphuric acid to you and me.
3. Consume Mercury & Burnt Shoes
A fascinating document from 1769, "Method Used For Curing Measles And Smallpox", published in Guatemala, reveals a lot about both measles cures at the time and the divide between local Indian medicine and Spanish colonists. We can't be exactly sure whether colonial doctors, who authored the guide, were being particularly accurate about what they described, but what they say about local cures for measles doesn't sound very effective. Measles, it was claimed, was often treated in conjunction with other diseases; if the patient was hysterical as well, the doctor would burn shoes and put rue on their navel, while cases of measles and worms were treated with a drink made from a tiny amount of mercury. The colonist Spanish didn't have better ideas themselves, though, for all their condescension. They recommended eating rice and avoiding jumping into rivers.
4. Take Enemas, Leeches And Opium
19th century England was a hotbed of new, exciting, and often slightly bizarre ideas for curing diseases. In The Domestic Dictionary and Housekeeper's Manual, a collection of advice for English housewives by the spectacularly named Gibbons Merle, several different measles cures are proposed, each more complicated than the last. Merle proposes "clysters" (enemas) and regular application of leeches for blood-letting, but that's pretty old-school. He added ideas about using tincture of opium, the extremely explosive concoction ethyl nitrate, poisonous antimony, and, for some reason, orange peel in drinks given to the suffering patient.
5. Drink Sheep Dung Tea
This is a more modern one, noted in a collection of folklore from German-founded communities in the Appalachian region of the US. Apparently, a common idea is that the measles can be cured via judicious drinking of "nanny tea," in which dried sheep manure is dissolved into hot water. The folklorist who recorded this belief after speaking to locals in 2007 explained that "measles first break out on the inside of your body, and sheep nanny tea will help them to break out on the outside, an important first step toward recovery." Nope, there is no way on earth that this is a good idea.
6. Drink Water From A Bumpy Gourd
Some medical ideas about measles in history concerned prevention, not cure, an idea that's been carried into the creation of vaccines. In 1947, an anthropologist recorded some of the medical ideas of the Bariba people in Benin, and established that one of the parts of the folklore of measles was a preventative measure: if you drank from a gourd that was itself covered in "bumps like pustules," you'd be protected from the pustules themselves. Interestingly, the anthropologist also noted that, at one particular village, sacred rocks would "cry out" if a measles epidemic was about to arrive, warning the villagers to get out of the way.
7. Put Cockroaches In A Jar
This one appears to be part of modern American folklore, from both New York state and Tennessee; it was reported in the James T. Callow Computerized Folklore Archive in 1973, but is likely much older. It's pretty simple: if you have measles, catch two cockroaches and put them in a jar. Once they die, your measles will be cured. Considering how long it takes cockroaches to die, it's likely that their deaths simply coincided with people naturally getting over measles, which takes several days. Thankfully, most American cockroaches will now be safe from the temptation to put them in jars. Long live the elimination of measles.