Measles in the Colonial America

European's first traveled to the Americas during a time commonly know as The Age of Exploration, which was a period starting during the late 1400s and carried into the early 1800s. Explorers promidently from Portugal and Spain established links with Asia, Africa, and the Americas in search of a faster, alternative trade route with Asia.
The routes of the four voyages of Columbus.

The first place European explorers traveled was to Central America and the surrounding islands . When they traveled to the Americas many diseases, unfortunately measles being one of them, came with them. The measles were a disease farmiliar to the Europeans who had built up immunity from sailiors bringing back this disease and other epidemic diseases from years and years of travel. Because the Europeans had been long exposed to measles, the disease was no longer life threatening. This however was far from the case for an abundance of natives in the New World who were killed by the disease. The disease was decribed as being similar to the smallpox disease. Measles and smallpox cause a similar red rash all over the body.

Many people belive that colinazation is America was the cause of death for most of the natives however, most of the population had already been wiped out by epedemic diseases brought over from Europe during the beginning of the Age of Exploration.

The measles disease is spread through the respiratory system and is highly contagious. Living and even standing by someone with the measles can be extremely dangerous due to the severity of the disease. 90% of people without immunity caught measles if they lived near someone with the disease. The disease was so powerful in the New World because no one had come in any contact with the disease which meant no one had any immunity. If they had already come into some sort of contact with the disease the
Death and disease with slavery in the colonies.
Death and disease with slavery in the colonies.
death rates and number of people who were sickened by the disease would have been significantly lower. The colonists traveling to the Americas did not understand correctly why they were not being killed off by the measles. They belived that they were kept alive because of the close connection they shared with God. During this time the colonists stayed extremely religious and close to the church in order to insure their good health.

The first recorded case of the miseasles to hit the thirteen colonies was in Boston . By 1531 up until 1534 the death rate in a few of the colonies reached up to 25-30 people. At this point there were very few natives were populating the areas the had been living in for centuries so even though 25-30 deaths doesn't seem like a huge number, at the population the natives were at, it was devestating. The outbreak occured a few years prior to an outbreak of smallpox and the whooping cough. Colonists once again became fearful of the spotty disease which had killed around 33% of the population of Cuba just a few years prior. Similarly to in the Americas, colonists turned to the church for protection. Colonists and explorers did not know where the disease originated which we can almost pinpoint more clearly today. The disease is suspected of coming to the Americas from Seville, Spain. Seville was the location of departure for most of the journeys made by Europeans accross the Atlantic Ocean. There were many significant factors leading to the spread of the measles besides the departing port in Seville. The growing number of slaves being brought to the Americas may have also been a significant factor in the spread. By 1531 cases were being recorded in Mexico.

Sixty one years later, two thirds of the natives in Cuba were killed in the 1592 outbreak. Two years after that devestating outbreak Measles killed half the population of Honduras and ravaged Mexico, Central America and the Inca Civilization .

South and Central America
external image map_of_peru.jpg
Between 1524 and 1527 the first Old World disease struck the Inka Empire. Numerous modern-day descriptions of these symptoms include high fevers accompanied with skin eruptions that resulted in a high death rate; this disease is thought to have been measles. This outbreak is thought to have been spread from south to north through the Rio de la Plata instead of the Pacific coast. In 1533 a measles outbreak came about in Nicaragua soon after Francisco’s third expedition to Peru. Throughout the 1530’s expeditions led by Sebastian de Benalcazar , Diego de Almargo and Francisco de Godoy arrived in Ecuadorian waters. These trips are thought to have spread measles and other diseases such as small pox and typhus throughout many Central and South American countries. The next measles epidemic broke out in Peru in 1558. This virus was thought to have been brought over to Peru by the Bishop of Santa Fe’s slaves. Many other cases of measles broke out in the next one hundred years in Central and South Americal; including the 1597 outburst in Lima and the 1611 outbreak in Quito. Seven years later Quito, and soon after, Peru and Bolivia, experienced another measles epidemic; this time around it was most devastating to children. These repeated recurrences of measles in Colonial America suggested that this disease could soon become endemic.

Although undated, this picute seems to be a drawing of what measles was like in Colonial America by a native.
Although undated, this picute seems to be a drawing of what measles was like in Colonial America by a native.

1) Silverstein, Robert, Alvin Silverstein, and Virginia Silverstein. "Measles in the New World." Measles and Rubella. Springfield, NJ : Enslow Publishers, 1997. 19, 20, 21, 22. Print.

2) Hays, J.N.. Epidemics and Pandemics: Their Impacts on Human History. 1 ed. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005.

3) Cartwright, Frederick F. Disease and History. unknown: Unknown, 1972. Pages. 114, 116. 120, 131-136

4) Newson, Linda A. Life and Death in Early Colonial Ecuador. Civilization of the American Indian Series. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

5) Cook, Noble David. Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650. New Approaches to the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.

6) "Measles - History for Kids!." Kidipede - History and Science for Kids - Homework Help for Middle School. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Jan. 2010. <>.