Epidemic | Prairie Public Broadcasting


Measles in Schools

Dec 8, 2020

North Dakota’s Legislature passed a law in 1975 that increased requirements for school immunizations. Parents had to provide proof their children had immunizations for several diseases, including measles. Epidemics in schools had posed challenges for decades in North Dakota, with measles bringing the risk of complications such as pneumonia.

The Grand Forks area saw a smallpox epidemic in the fall of 1878 that killed the city’s first physician. Few newspaper accounts exist about the outbreak, but one family’s history links the epidemic to a neighbor who knocked on the family’s door and collapsed unconscious onto their kitchen floor, bleeding from smallpox. Of the six people at home, three were sickened and died -- the father and two small daughters just days apart. 

Their bodies were placed in wooden coffins, sprinkled with lye and buried in the family’s pasture, but were later exhumed and reburied in a cemetery. The mother was pregnant. She was infected, but survived and suffered impaired vision. She gave birth to a son.


Typhoid is caused by bacteria associated with human waste. In the fall of 1893, Crookston had several dozen cases of typhoid, and as a precaution, authorities on this date flushed the city’s backed-up sewer main into the Red Lake River. Bad idea. 

Practically every downstream neighbor was affected, from farmhouses to small towns. Grand Forks, which had about 8,000 residents, was hit the hardest, with a typhoid outbreak about a month after the Crookston flush. Grand Forks drew its drinking water from where the Red Lake River met the Red River.


To combat North Dakota’s western equine encephalitis epidemic in 1941, health authorities recommended that farm workers wear mesh veils, gloves and ankle coverings. That’s because the outbreak was linked to mosquitoes transmitting a virus from horses.

Encephalitis causes inflammation of the brain, flu-like symptoms, weakness and loss of consciousness. The so-called “sleeping sickness” had been present in the state since the ‘30s, but nothing like the epidemic of 1941, which affected at least eleven hundred North Dakotans, killing at least 130.


Disease outbreaks in schools have posed challenges for decades. During the 1952-53 school year, school and health officials took hard measures to fight a scalp ringworm outbreak in Grand Forks. On this date in 1952, the Associated Press reported that the epidemic was sweeping eastern North Dakota, but it appeared to be centered in Grand Forks among children ages 5 to 10. Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin, and at the time was diagnosed using ultraviolet light.


Epidemics of diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever and other diseases struck schools, churches and families throughout North Dakota more than a century ago. Children were especially vulnerable, and siblings often died within days of each other. After a local couple buried all three of their children, the Emmons County Record urged the 1899 Legislature to do something to stamp out the diseases, writing: “Surely heroic measures ought to be taken to save the precious lives of our children.” The following spring, the State Board of Health adopted a rule that no pupil could enter any public school without proof of vaccination.