Measles Myths: Redux

You’d imagine that, by the second decade of the 21st century, we’d be done talking about measles. Like small pox, measles would be a distant and unpleasant memory of days gone by – at very least in the developed world.

Sadly, that is not the case. Although measles was looking distinctly peaky in the late 90s (with fewer than 100 confirmed cases annually in England and Wales), infections have risen sharply in the past few years with highly-publicised outbreaks in south Wales and Liverpool, including one possible death.

In response, Public Health England have today launched the MMR ‘catch up’ campaign, with the aim of vaccinating one million unvaccinated children between the ages of 10 and 16 before the start of the new school year.

Unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of public health campaigners, vaccination rates are still suffering as a result of uncritical reporting of the discredited Wakefield study which linked the MMR vaccine to autism. Many parents avoided vaccinating their children at the time, community immunity suffered, and with those children now of school age we are paying the price today.

Last time there was a big increase in measles cases, I wrote an article responding to common myths and misconceptions I had read in the ‘Have Your Say’ section of BBC News. Unfortunately, many of those same myths continue to persist today (my blog didn’t change the world – who’d have thought it?)

So in support of the Public Health England campaign, I’ve decided the time is right to give it another airing.

Myth #1: Measles is no big deal.

Measles is a big deal. Measles is one of the most infectious diseases we know of.  Children who catch measles will be bedridden for a week and away from school for two. Complication rates are about 1 in 15, with complications ranging from pneumonia to encephalitis and death.  According to the WHO, measles is the leading cause of childhood mortality from a preventable disease.

Normally, people followed up this comment with; “I had measles when I was a kid — and I survived!”  Well, of course you did.  Fool.  And aren’t you the lucky one?  I suppose it never occurred to you that the kids who died of measles aren’t going grow up, log on to Have Your Say, and correct you when you claim measles is no biggie?  By definition, the only adults alive today are ones who did not die of measles when they were children.

Myth #2: MMR doesn’t work. My friend’s kid was vaccinated, but caught measles anyway.

You don’t understand vaccination.  Vaccination does not erect a force field around your children that magically deflects or destroys viral particles.

Think of it more like a boxing match.  It’s Little Johnny Playpen versus Mean Machine Measles.  If Johnny has spent some time at the gym, working out with the vaccination punchbag, he stands a much better chance of scoring an early KO on Mean Machine.  He still has to fight the fight, and he may still get some cuts and bruises, but the chances are very good that Johnny is going to come out on top.

Myth #3: My kid is vaccinated, so he is safe. I don’t care what other kids do.

Well done on getting your kid vaccinated… but you’re an irresponsible and selfish ass.  The important concept you’re ignoring here is herd immunity.  When a certain percentage of the population has been vaccinated, the pathogen is unable to spread.

To return to our boxing metaphor, there are so many tough guys around that Mean Machine Measles has left town.  This is great news for Timmy Neutropenic, who was too sick to get down to the gym and train for the fight; and also for Katy Newborn, who isn’t old enough to apply for her gym membership.

Myth #4: I’m a mother; I know what is best for my children.  Doctor’s don’t know everything!

In no way can or does the act of procreation bestow previously ignorant or uninformed parents with an understanding of complicated medical issues.  Doctors may not know everything, but they do know something.  It takes a long, long time and a lot of hard, hard work to earn the title of “doctor”.

It makes no sense to take advice on important medical decisions from a person with no medical knowledge, while ignoring advice received from someone with extensive medical knowledge, simply because you understand that knowledge to be incomplete.

Myth #5: The MMR causes autism.

I was really tempted to ignore this one, or just make a snarky remark.  Some people still buy this tripe though, so one last time:

  1. There is no link between MMR and autism.
  3. The Wakefield Study, which kicked off this whole MMR/Autism debacle, has long-since been discredited and debunked.
  4. When I say discredited, I don’t just mean that Wakefield got it wrong.  This wasn’t just bad science – the data was faked.
  5. If there were a link between MMR and autism, we would expect to see autism rates decline as MMR vaccinations decline.  We don’t.

Myth #6: Individual shots for measles, mumps and rubella are safer than the MMR.

Vaccination is an invasive procedure, in that it involves sticking tiny metal tubes through your skin.  Any invasive procedure carries risk of infection.  Bacteremia, for example.  You wouldn’t want to accidentally get bacteria in the blood because someone was a bit sloppy with the hygiene procedures that day.

MMR isn’t just a single shot, it takes two doses to get the best effect. That’s two chances for someone to be sloppy with a needle.  If you are going to have three separate vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella – then you need to have six shots overall. That’s six chances for someone to be sloppy with a needle.  You’ve just tripled your risk.

Plus, these shots need to be spread out!  So it will take longer for the child to obtain the same level of immunity they would have had from the MMR.  Who knows what could have happened to them in that time?  Maybe Mean Machine will follow someone back from vacation and pick on your kid before he’s spent enough time in the gym to know what he is doing.

AND! Six shots means six trips to the doctor. Who has time to take six trips to the doctor? Six mornings off work?  You’ve got to be kidding.  Think how easy it would be to “forget” one or two of those mornings off work… and all of a sudden little Tony Lazymum is suffering psychoneurological deterioration as a result of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis.

Two trips to the doctor instead of six is more manageable. Parents are less likely to skip shots and then there greater chance of everyone getting the right shots at the right time to protect them.

Myth #7: Vaccination is a conspiracy of Big Science to reduce the population.

Now this is one where I can just leave a snarky comment.

Hahahahahahahahahaha hahahahahahahahahahaha hahahahahaha hahahahah haha hahahahahahahaha!

  1. #1 by dave lambert on April 25, 2013 - 13:11

    Thanks for this, unfortunately a few of my acquaintances (educated people) are still adamant not to vaccinate their kids. Go figure.

  2. #2 by Sophie on April 25, 2013 - 19:12

    I’m 17 years old and after my initial vaccinations as a baby my mum decided I wasn’t going to have any more due to the MMR scare. My brothers, born after it, had no vaccines at all.

    I want to be a doctor and I have been learning about the scientific side of vaccinations through my Biology A Level and listening to the Skeptics with a K podcast. I have explained what I have learnt to her and I have almost changed her mind about them.

    I’m now going to have to have all the vaccinations I should have had as a child, within the next year so that I can go to medical school. She’s accepted that I will have to have these but is still nervous about letting my brothers have the MMR jab even though they have been targeted by our GP recently.

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