British scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock observed the brilliance of a particular group of organisms when he noted, “An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it.”

Morbillivirus is quite a clever virus that has been in the news lately. This is the genus of viruses that has been causing a bit of mêlée among the masses, since measles is the result of one of its variations.

Measles is an infection of the respiratory system caused by a morbillivirus. Also called morbilli, rubeola, and red measles, this particular strain’s only host is humans. As most of us know, measles is an airborne disease that is highly contagious and spread by coughing, sneezing and direct contact with secretions, as the virus resides in mucus.

Though its symptoms may appear minor and include fever, runny nose, and red eyes, this crafty virus has a dark side and can cause severe illness and even death. Thirty per cent of patients sickened by measles can have complications beyond those basics, which can include blindness, brain inflammation, and pneumonia. Even more tragic is that one out of every 1,000 patients affected dies, making the virus efficient enough to keep going, yet deadly enough to do some damage.

It seems that islands have a special reason to be concerned. Studies show that nine out of every 10 unvaccinated people that share living spaces will be infected. Consider these pre-vaccination statistics, all from islands. In 1529, measles killed two-thirds of the native population of Cuba, and in 1850, approximately 20 per cent of Hawaii’s population succumbed. In 1875, one-third of the native population of Fiji perished.

Worldwide from 1855 to 2005, 200 million people have died. Luckily, there now is a vaccine to protect us and our neighbors. John F. Enders and Thomas Peebles first isolated the virus in 1954, and by 1963, a vaccine developed earlier by Maurice Hilleman was available.

Humans are lucky; other animals cannot just take a shot to prevent the diseases that morbilliviruses can bring.

Wild and domestic animals can also be infected by different strains of this virulent virus. For dogs, coyotes, wolves and seals, morbilliviruses can cause canine distemper. In cattle, it appears as rinderpest, and goats and sheep are affected by peste des petits ruminants (PPR).

More recently, we saw a mass mortality among dolphins caused by a type of morbillivirus. In 2013 and 2014, more than 1,000 bottlenose dolphins were killed by a periodic outbreak of a type of Phocine distemper, caused by, you guessed it, a morbillivirus.

We should all do our part to rein in morbilliviruses for ourselves and our community. Contemporary science writer Jeffrey Kluger rightly observed, “There is no one place a virus goes to die — but that doesn’t make its demise any less a public health victory. Throughout human history, viral diseases have had their way with us, and for just as long, we have hunted them down and done our best to wipe them out.” Let’s keep trying.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.