Marco Cáceres di Iorio

Once upon a time, there was this measles vaccine…

The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine is a live attenuated virus measles vaccine. That means that it contains a live measles virus that has been weakened. One of the “side effects” of the vaccine (which you can read in the vaccine’s package insert) is something called “atypical measles.” Yes yes yes, atypical measles is, essentially, measles. You can contract measles from the vaccine that is designed to prevent you from contracting measles. Surprise!

Now, let me take you back in history to the early 1960s, specifically 1963 when the first measles vaccine was introduced in the United States. Back then, the prevailing scientific belief was that one dose of the measles vaccine would provide you with life-long immunity. It sounded like a great deal. One shot, and boom… you were safe from getting measles the rest of your life. Well, you know how science is; it keeps changing on you. It’s funny that way. It’s never really settled, is it? Of course, only an idiot would assume that it is.

Anyways, back in the 1960s (Ah, those were the good ole days, The Beatles, Gary Puckett, VW buses…) medical doctors, scientists, and public health officials were convinced that one shot of the measles vaccine guaranteed you immunity. So, when doctors soon started to see cases of children with what looked like measles, they waved it off and said, “Nah, can’t possibly be measles because the kid’s been vaccinated against measles, so he’s immune… It’s gotta be be something else. Eh, let’s just call it atypical measles.”

Well, guess what? All those cases of “atypical measles” didn’t make it into the record books, data files, or graphs and charts for measles incidence rates. Why? Because doctors, who were working under a mistaken scientific belief, assumed what they were observing was not measles, although atypical measles had all the symptoms of measles. Countless children who came down with atypical measles were not considered to have measles… although that is precisely what they had. Interesting gimmick, huh?

The science behind the measles vaccines of the 1960s proved to be wrong, and that led to a false understanding of what actually happened with regard to measles infections during that period of history. By and large, we continue to live with that fantasy—the one that assumes that the measles vaccines nearly eradicated measles in the US. The same thing happened with the polio story. They blew it with the science back then, and they blew it with the understanding of the history of it all.

Doctors, scientists, and public health officials just don’t seem to be very good historians. And that’s a crying shame, because if you get the history wrong it all turns into one big complicated mess. Unraveling it all is one heck of a chore, and most people don’t have the interest or the attention span required to undertake it. So, sadly, they chose to stick with the fairy tale.

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