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Infectious disease roared here in the 1920s

1927 was a very, very bad year for the health of Southern Oregon citizens. A typhoid epidemic threatened the community, dozens of children were crippled from infantile paralysis and meningitis, measles and smallpox ran rampant.

By 1927, inoculation and vaccination were known to prevent cholera, the plague, diphtheria, typhoid and smallpox — but the history of man’s response to disease shows a cycle of panic, reaction and indifference that slowed the control and eradication of many communicable diseases.

Today it is all too easy to imagine that these terrible ailments are nightmares from a past time, but the control and eradication of contagious disease has only been possible through widespread, systematic and ongoing vaccination programs.

“Aside from sanitation, immunizations are perhaps the most significant public health discovery we’ve made,” notes Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County medical director.

The Oregon Health Authority reports that Jackson County has one of the lowest childhood vaccination rates in the state, and Ashland is second to only Boulder, Colorado, as the least vaccinated city in the United States, according to AshlandChild.org, a website set up by concerned parents and health professionals. The Ashland School District reports that in some Ashland schools, only 38% of students are current on all vaccinations, and nonmedical vaccination exemptions are as high as 58%.

In 2019, the Oregon House passed a bill — HB 3063 — that would have eliminated nonmedical vaccination exemptions. But when the bill moved to the Senate, Democrats agreed in a backroom deal with Republicans to kill the bill in exchange for Senate Republicans’ agreement to return from a walkout and allow passage of a $2 billion tax measure to fund schools.

“We do know that socially, people who don’t vaccinate tend to cluster together, attend the same schools or go to similar community events,” says Andrea Krause, epidemiologist with Jackson County Public Health, “and so that does provide an environment where an infectious disease can take hold and get some momentum.”

Eighty Jackson County citizens died of smallpox in 1927, far fewer than had been seen in the past. Those pus-filled eruptions let everyone know you were diseased, and if you lived, you’d be scarred for life. The city of Medford largely escaped because of a 1917 epidemic that caused most of the citizens to be vaccinated, but Salem, Roseburg, Grants Pass and Cottage Grove were hard hit. Klamath Falls reported 70-80 active cases in quarantine, but by Jan. 28, 1927, an aggressive vaccination program had been completed and smallpox was on the run in Klamath Falls, at least for the time being.

In the late 1920s, infantile paralysis (polio) was epidemic in Jackson County, and in 1927, an epidemic broke out in Jackson County.

The August 1927 Mail Tribune carried frantic reports of the disease throughout Southern Oregon, and barricades were set up to block travelers coming from infected areas. Rogue Valley towns canceled church services, closed schools and movie houses and prohibited public gatherings as they waited for the epidemic to pass. Until the development of the polio vaccine decades later, there was only the probability of death and disability.

Thanks to school vaccination programs that started up in the 1920s, baby immunizations and public health cluster tracking, some contagious diseases are unknown today. The incidence of other diseases, like measles, diphtheria and whooping cough, have been reduced when childhood immunization programs are widespread.

In 1929, there were 235 cases of measles and 255 cases of scarlet fever reported in Jackson County. And even though Medford’s Dr. Elijah Pickel is said to have been the first physician in Oregon to administer the diphtheria antitoxin in 1895, local vaccination policies and practices were sporadic.

In 1927, there were 27 cases and 4 deaths attributed to diphtheria Jackson County. Jackson County public health officials stepped up to the challenge and administered 3,802 diphtheria vaccinations in 1928.

Some highly contagious but preventable diseases, such as measles, are still a threat to public health because not enough of the population has been vaccinated to establish what health professionals call “herd immunity.” Herd immunity kicks in when 93%-94% of a group has been immunized; in 2017, the vaccination rate for measles was as low as 59% in two Ashland schools.

“If you have a disease like measles, which is one of the most contagious diseases we know, you need a very large number of people protected in order to prevent its spread,” Shames said. “Immunizing the majority of people protects the community at large, and if enough people pull out of the agreement, then the population isn’t safe.”

“If your neighbor and all your schoolmates decide that vaccinations aren’t needed,” Shames added, “then they’re really needed.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Metropolitan Life Insurance company promoted diphtheria immunization in New York in the 1920s. College of Physicians of Philadelphia