Will "Measles Parties" Return?

The co-author of this post is Will Schupmann

This post has been corrected for accuracy.

President Trump's possible appointment of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to lead a commission on vaccine safety should frighten all American parents. Kennedy, a vocal believer in the thoroughly discredited notion that childhood vaccines lead to autism, could strengthen the anti-vaccination movement, which would undoubtedly result in the deaths of unvaccinated children.

Today's anti-vaccination movement has already proved to be dangerous. The Disneyland-linked outbreak of measles in California two years ago brought attention to a significant decline in vaccination rates, which vaccine opponents have had a hand in causing. Indeed, after having been declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, measles made a comeback, infecting over 100 children in that outbreak alone.

We don't have to wait to see what will happen if the anti-vaccination movement gains strength--we need only to look to America 60 years ago. During the 1950s and early 1960s, measles was a common childhood illness. But when vaccine researchers developed the first measles vaccine in 1963, parents were by no means rushing into their doctor's office to get their child vaccinated. Many, like some parents today, were under the impression that the vaccine was unnecessary; they saw measles as so prevalent that they considered it a normal part of childhood.

A 1962 issue of Parents' Magazine & Better Homemaking stated that, "Measles has always been accepted as part of the growing-up process, as much a part of childhood as stubbed toes and dirty hands." In fact, some parents even organized measles parties. According to a 1960 article in the Los Angeles Times entitled "'Measles Parties' Put Spots on Tots," this was a growing trend in Canada, where parents wanted their children to come down with the disease before adulthood. These measles parties may have also been precursors to the "pox parties" of the 1980s, in which parents exposed their children to chickenpox. In 2015, a number of news outlets reported on parents organizing events similar to these measles parties, but such reports were later deemed unsubstantiated.

Paradoxically, as historian Elena Conis notes, the public's lack of anxiety with regard to measles was at least in part due to the fact that polio was still fresh in people's minds. Polio, with its paralysis symptoms that resulted in children becoming reliant on the iconic iron lung, left a frightening and intensely visual mark on American society. Jonas Salk in 1954 was successful in developing a vaccine against the dreaded disease, and rates of infection declined drastically. For most parents, the mild symptoms the majority of children infected with measles experienced was nothing compared to the devastating (but incredibly rare) symptoms of polio.

The consequences of the public's nonchalance toward measles were severe, however. One mother at the time was shocked that the cause of her child's death was measles. She told the hospital's epidemiologist, "It was only measles, doctor. No one worries about measles any more. We kept her warm and gave her aspirin and a cough medicine. No, we had no doctor."

The author Roald Dahl, whose daughter contracted measles and died from encephalitis in 1962, wrote an essay twenty years later in response to anti-vaccination trends in the U.K. He implored parents to get their children vaccinated against the disease:

"I was sitting on her [Dahl's daughter's] bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn't do anything. 'Are you feeling all right?' I asked her. 'I feel all sleepy.' She said. In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead."

His evocative language demonstrates how dangerous and unexpected the disease could be, as he understood firsthand that measles wasn't feared among parents, despite its deadly potential. From 1958 to 1962, more than 500,000 measles cases and more than 400 measles-related deaths were reported each year. In its most benign manifestation, measles regularly caused fever, fatigue, and a full-body rash. In more severe cases children could contract pneumonia, which was the most common cause of death from measles, or develop encephalitis. Encephalitis, or the swelling of the brain, could lead to convulsions and leave their child deaf or with an intellectual disability. Tragically, very few parents at the time knew that measles was in fact more deadly than polio. Perhaps knowing this would have prompted more concern, and quicker acceptance of the vaccine.

We can thus learn something from our country's experience of measles when it was widespread not too long ago. It was indeed a dangerous--and highly contagious--disease that parents underestimated. Let's not make this mistake again; it is imperative that we keep our vaccination rates high and work hard to dispel the dangerous misconceptions to which individuals like President Trump and Robert F. Kennedy subscribe.

Note: Parts of this post originally appeared in Will Schupmann's senior thesis at the University of Pennsylvania.