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Measles, MMR and our Risk-Averse Culture
posted: Friday November 28, 2008

Today the Health Protection Agency (HPA) reports that 1049 cases of measles were reported in the twelve months ending October 2008. This is the highest number of measles cases recorded in England and Wales since the current method of monitoring the disease was introduced in 1995.

Attributing this to the relatively low MMR vaccine uptake over the past decade, the HPA press release includes the following comments:-

"... there are now a large number of children who are not fully vaccinated with MMR. This means that measles is spreading easily among unvaccinated children."

"There is now a real risk of a large measles epidemic. These children are susceptible to not only measles but to mumps and rubella [German measles] as well."

"...there is now a real risk of a large measles outbreak of between approximately 30,000 to 100,000 cases - the majority in London."

So there we have it; some (now completely discredited) research about the MMR vaccine, combined with sensational media coverage, scared too many parents, who had probably never seen a serious case of measles, into believing their children were at serious risk of becoming autistic if they were given the MMR vaccine.

Yes, measles used to be some sort of 'rite of passage' when I grew up in the fifties. Parents even used to hold 'measles parties' to ensure that their children contracted measles (and thus future immunity) from an infected 'guest of honour'!

But measles can be very serious - even in a strong and healthy child. The prospect of a major epidemic amongst a population of largely unprotected children in a major city should definitely not be taken lightly.

I'm no epidemiologist (no medical professional of any kind in fact) but I believe that living in the increasingly aseptic environment that we do, our immune systems are not challenged enough to properly develop. Treatment of measles is certainly better than it used to be, but the disease's severity might also be more more serious amongst the modern population. Consider what happened in the 1500s when Cortez and his Conquistadores introduced measles and other endemic Euopean diseases into the previously unexposed and thus vulnerable populations of Central and South America.

But I digress - it's the risk-averse nature of our society that I'm banging on about here. We have become such absolute masters of identifying - or misidentifying - a miniscule risk of some sort (developing autism from the MMR vaccine, dying on a school trip, eating a lamb chop pink, drinking red wine, not drinking red wine, gardening with a slight skin abrasion, etc etc) that we have lost sight of the fact that these risks are just part of life. So we allocate hugely disproportionate time, effort and resources into the nanny state.

Humans thrive on risk and adventure, always have, always will. Let's not allow our common sense to get swept away in the rush to make our lives risk-free. A measles epidemic would be a tragic but perfect example of what happens when we ignore common sense.

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Measles in an adolescent


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