Cure-allTara, over at Aetiology, blogged about the new measles outbreaks and death in Britain, following the drop in MMR vaccine use because of the fraudulant lies of Andrew Wakefield. (If you’re not familiar with the whole sordid story, Wakefield is the guy who claimed a link between MMR and autism. The link has been roundly debunked, and Wakefield has turned out to have had commercial links in the anti-vaccine industry.)

Whooping cough, EnglandAnyway, the story immediately reminded me of a previous go-round of antivaccine lunacy. In the mid-1970s, pertussis (whooping cough) incidence had dropped spectacularly, as a result of vaccination. With unfamiliarity came contempt; people forgot what whooping cough was like, and anti-vaccine loons crawled out from under their rocks and started peddling spurious links between vaccine reactions and various problems. Parents fell prey to the alarmists, and stopped vaccinating their children. Unsurprisingly, whooping cough re-emerged as a killer. In England, for example, whooping cough incidence had dropped from 200-400 cases per 100,000, prevaccine, to … well, I can’t read it off the graph because it’s too low, but something much less than that.

Then in 1974:

Persistent television and press coverage interrupted a successful vaccination programme. A prominent public-health academic, Dr Gordon Stewart, claimed that the protective effect of the vaccine was marginal and did not outweigh its danger.1

Unsurprisingly, pertussis rates promptly climbed back up, with the classic epidemic spikes that parents in 1950s had been grimly familiar with.

There’s nothing like seeing your neighbours’ children suffocating to death on their own phlegm to change your mind about vaccination. As whooping cough swept across the country again, vaccine rates also shot back up. And once again, pertussis has dropped to background rates. (But not to zero. Tara has previously noted the recent increases in pertussis frequency, linked to reductions in vaccination.)

And now, history is repeating itself: antivaccine loons are responsible for another child’s death: Last year a 13-year-old boy, from a travelling community in the North-West, became the first person to die of measles since 1992.

  1. The quote is from the same article as the figre I include here: Gangarosa, E. J., Galazka, A. M., Wolfe, C. R., Phillips, L. M., Gangarosa, R. E., Miller, E., and Chen, R. T. (1998). Impact of anti-vaccine movements on pertussis control: the untold story. Lancet 351, 356-361. It’s a fascinating article, and well worth reading.[]