Last Measles Outbreak
For decades, measles was a pervasive disease that swamped towns and schools with epidemics, until vaccines were developed in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The last measles outbreak in North Dakota disrupted school events and threatened the state track meet.
It was on this date in 1986 that the Associated Press reported seven measles cases in East Grand Forks, Minnesota; and one each in Michigan, North Dakota, and Thief River Falls, Minnesota. East Grand Forks postponed its high school prom. Local health officials urged parents to keep their children out of crowded areas such as churches, shopping malls and movie theaters. North Dakota’s Department of Health called for unvaccinated children to stay away from schools and day cares. The measles cases were the first in North Dakota in seven years.
More new cases prompted the Health Department to issue measles alerts for multiple counties and to recommend schools in those counties suspend extracurricular activities. Parents flooded doctors and the Health Department with phone calls and questions. Health officials traced the outbreak to Manitoba and recommended people avoid travel to Canada and counties with a measles alert. Measles alerts usually lasted two weeks.
The outbreak looked like it would disrupt the boys and girls Class A and Class B state track meet set for late May in Grand Forks, where about 1,400 students would gather. But the two-day event went on after Grand Forks County’s health officer said a countywide ban on after-school events had been successful.
In total, 25 people in nine counties tested positive for measles in 1986 in North Dakota, including 10 in Morton County. One case stood out. A 90-year-old farmer from Michigan, North Dakota, was reported to the CDC as the oldest person in the US to ever have measles.
The 1987 Legislature passed a law stemming from the measles outbreak and inconsistent local compliance with state health guidance. The Health Department’s attorney told lawmakers: “The resulting inconsistent application of control measures created a significant amount of confusion, frustration and anger.” The law allows the state health officer to ask a judge to cancel public events and close businesses to prevent the spread of disease. The law also allows the state health officer to order any measures deemed necessary for disease control. Decades later, in the coronavirus pandemic, four North Dakota state health officers used the law to issue quarantine orders and a statewide mask mandate.
Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura
North Dakota State Department of Health. (1987). Fiftieth biennial report July 1, 1985 – June 30, 1987. Office of State Health Officer: Bismarck, ND
1987 SB 2117 Legislative History. Received from North Dakota Legislative Council
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The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 2. Page 11
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 3. Page 7
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 7. Pages 1, 10, 14
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 10. Page 18
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 12. Page 11
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 13. Page 14
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 15. Page 36
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 16. Page 17
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 24. Page 17
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 29. Pages 1, 9
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, May 31. Pages 1, 6
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, June 6. Page 12
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, June 17. Pages 1, 8
The Bismarck Tribune. 1986, June 20. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1987, January 6. Page 13
The Bismarck Tribune. 1987, January 9. Page 19
The Bismarck Tribune. 1987, February 5. Page 13
The Bismarck Tribune. 1987, May 7. Page 9
The Bismarck Tribune. 2011, June 14. Page 14