In the wake of the current US measles outbreak, which began at Disneyland in California and has so far has resulted in 121 infections and thousands more people exposed across seventeen states (figures current for 15/02/2015), public and media attention has been directed toward the issues of vaccination and the anti-vaccination movement.
As we witness the very real effects of lowered herd immunity due to vaccine refusal, vocal support for vaccines has been prominent, as has criticism of anti-vaccination misinformation. In particular, public attention has again been drawn to “Melanie’s Marvelous Measles“; a picture book which attempts to reassure children that it’s a good thing to experience measles infection, written by Australian vaccination opponent Stephanie Messenger.
The blurb on the back cover gives a good summary as to what the book is about:
“Melanie’s Marvelous Measles was written to educate children on the benefits of having measles and how you can heal from them naturally and successfully. Often today, we are being bombarded with messages from vested interests to fear all diseases in order for someone to sell some potion or vaccine, when, in fact, history shows that in industrialized countries, these diseases are quite benign and, according to natural health sources, beneficial to the body.”
You know… this book is troubling on so many levels. When I decided to cover it in my report this week, I initially wondered whether I’d have to present you with ten minutes of stunned silence.
The story within follows Tina, who arrives at her first day back at school after the winter holidays to find that her friend Melanie is absent. Their teacher, heavily pregnant, advises the class that Melanie is at home with measles. Some children are concerned and worried about catching measles.
“Tina heard Jared tell Travis, the boy beside him, that he wouldn’t get the measles because he had been vaccinated.
Travis said that he wasn’t vaccinated, but didn’t mind, until Jared then told him angrily, “Well, you’re going to die if you don’t get vaccinated.”
Travis thought about this for a minute and said to Jared “Well, I know that isn’t true because I haven’t had any vaccinations and I am still alive!”
Jared didn’t know what to say to that!”
And why should Jared? He’s a kid… a fictional one at that. However, adults – adults who write books for children – certainly should know better.
Of course kids who aren’t vaccinated aren’t necessarily ‘going to die’… the nuances of risk are utterly lacking in this book. It’s also a little heavy handed in portraying a vaccinated kid in a negative manner – more on this later.
Tina returns home after school and chats with her mother about Melanie, measles and the other children’s reactions. Tina’s mother, who has not vaccinated Tina after attributing an illness Tine’s older brother experienced to his vaccination, reassures Tina that the measles don’t hurt. She tells Karen that children get spots on their body and can feel very hot for a day or so, and that for most children it is a good thing to get measles, as many wise people believe measles make the body stronger and more mature for the future. Tina then asks her mother why the other children were scared. Her mother replies,
“They are scared because they don’t know much about measles and most people fear things they don’t know anything about. It’s a bit like being scared of the dark.”
Tina’s mother then tells her about pox parties, and “natural lifelong immunity”
This has always puzzled me greatly. If measles and chickenpox are absolutely fine to experience, why on earth do some anti-vaccinationists declare immunity gained by experiencing an illness to be a good thing? Bizarre.
The story continues. Tina asks her mother if she can go and visit Melanie in the hopes of catching her measles. Her mother feels that this is a great idea and suggests bringing carrot juice and melon to help Melanie recover.
Yep, they’re having a pox party for two.
Melanie greets Tina at the door and proudly shows off her spots, reassuring Tina that they don’t itch or hurt at all. Melanie’s mother is nonplussed at the efficacy of the measles vaccine Melanie recieved and mentions that Melanie has the worst case of measles the doctor had seen in years.
Melanie’s family doctor… must be rather limited in his experience, if an active and happy child with a rash is the worst case of measles he’s seen in years. Common measles symptoms include fever, malaise, runny nose, dry cough, conjunctivitis and rash… complications can include middle ear inflammation, diarrhoea and vomiting, respiratory infections, pneumonia, miscarriage and premature labour in pregnant women (such as Tina and Melanie’s teacher), encephalitis (which occurs in around one in a thousand measles cases – 10-15% of people with encephalitis die, 15-40% end up with degrees of permenant brain damage). There’s one complication of measles that Melanie’s family doctor wouldn’t have been able to spot though – subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, or SSPE. It’s rare, affecting around one in a hundred thousand cases of measles, but nasty… SSPE is progressive inflammation of the brain that causes loss of personality and intellectual disability. SSPE usually begins around seven years after measles infection.
It’s hard to fathom how anybody could be aware of these facts and still classify measles as a benign short-lived children’s illness… and one to actively seek out exposure to.
Back to the book, Tina’s mother talks about the ability of ‘plenty of vitamin A’ to prevent measles and assist recovery from measles. The girls play with dolls, hug and display wonderful manners.
A week later, Melanie is back at school with no rash. Tina and her mother are incredibly disappointed that Tina hasn’t contracted measles – Tina’s mother attributes this to Tina’s immune system being in good condition, because she eats lots of raw fresh food, drinks plenty of water and plays outside.
As much as it’s feeling like shooting fish in a barrel to point out the inaccuracies in this book… I find the downplaying of how highly infectious measles is is one of the most troubling elements in Melanie’s Marvelous Measles. Measles is airborne and lives a long time outside the human body… a person can become infected with measles by entering a room that somebody carrying it has been in two hours prior. It is estimated that nine in ten people without immunity who have contact with someone who is carrying measles will contract it. Measles symptoms usually occur 10-12 days after infection… all of this means that measles can spread like wildfire – particularly in areas of low herd immunity.
The book ends with the news that Jared, our vaccinated strawman, did get the measles. Tina attributes this to Jared eating so many sweets and chips, and sanctimoniously wishes, “I hope the measles make his body stronger and more mature and that he learns to eat more fresh foods so he can take better care of his body,”. The accompanying image is of an annoyed Jared laying in bed covered in spots with a hamburger, chips (labeled ‘MSG enriched, GM Full, I kid you not), cheezels, soda, cupcake, chocolate bar on his bedside table.
The emphasis on nutrition is heavy here – as is the suggestion that good foods can prevent disease as effectively as we know vaccines can. Of course good nutrition affects general health, but as my friend Alison so eloquently put it recently, “Diseases don’t care if you’ve eaten kale or McDonalds.”
The last page features Tina beaming up at her mother, juice in hand, fruit beside her, and exclaiming, “Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to catch measles next time someone we know has them!”
There’s a dedication in the front of the book, which I’m thinking some of the book’s intended audience, children from four to ten years old, would read if they were reading independently. It states,
“Dedication . . .
This book is dedicated to Jason, my first born son. In his short life he taught me to be a more responsible parent, and with his death from vaccinations, came my life purpose.”
It seems that Stephanie Messenger has experienced terrible grief in her life, which has led her on the path she pursues. However, I question whether it is responsible to associate infant death with vaccination in a book for children – at all, but especially when the dangers of measles are downplayed so greatly – the risks of vaccination versus the diseases they prevent are utterly skewed. If I were a kid, who trusted in this book and the adult who gave it to me, I would be terrified of vaccines and fairly blase about measles. Which is perhaps the aim of this book – but goodness, I find it troubling. Kids trust their caregivers to provide them with accurate guidance in life and this book does anything but.
Mainstream media outlets, news websites and forums have been linking to Amazon’s listing of Melanie’s Marvelous Measles – and the torrent of negative reviews which Amazon users have been leaving.
Now, I don’t know how many of these people who have reviewed the book have actually read it, or whether many are just responding to its very existence. Some of the reviews are rather poignant – amongst the anger, frustration, mockery and black humour, there are some salient points which I feel bear repeating, such as this review from “Seabisquick”:
“My infant daughter went blind after contracting measles from an unvaccinated child, and yet there’s no braille version of this wonderful book for me to give her someday to explain to her how awesome the disease that took her sight away is.”
“Wow! I will have to buy this for my Dad. He and my uncle had Polio as toddlers and both were left with permanent disabilities. Now, in their golden years, they get to suffer from Post-Polio Syndrome as an added bonus! Preventable diseases truly are “marvelous” – just ask my Dad!”
“I’m so glad this book is out! Here I was thinking the two weeks of my childhood spent in a darkened room with blinding headaches and a burning fever were not fun. It was the early sixties and the measles were all the rage, but I was too young and ignorant to realize I was experiencing a miracle. This book has opened my eyes. I had to read it through some thick eye glasses though. They’re almost as fun to wear as the little, plastic sunglasses I had to keep on when I watched tv with my viral pals, The Measles. To this day the measles protect me from getting too much sun as the sensitivity to light has never left me.
Just to be a part of history and to have lived under a quarantine that stretched out to almost a month when my mother took ill with my marvelous measles is an honor I didn’t recognize. Lucky for me though! I had immunity to the disease! Good thing my mother wasn’t pregnant then. At least, I don’t think she was. I have no siblings.
I must apologize to my children for withholding such a glorious experience from them. Vaccines were available and free for the taking when they were young. I can’t believe I fell for that. Hopefully, they will forgive me for denying them this life-changing experience.”
“What a dirtbag move to steal the title of author Roald Dahl’s book “George’s Marvelous Medicine”– Roald Dahl’s daughter died of measles. This so-called author is just a leach on society, children, and the memory of Dahl’s little girl.”
Indeed, the title “Melanie’s Marvelous Measles” does bear resemblance to the title of Roald Dahl’s book “George’s Marvelous Medicine”.
Which leads me back to the media coverage relating to the current US measles outbreak. Circulating widely at the moment is an open letter which Roald Dahl wrote to parents in 1988, in which he urges them to vaccinate their children and speaks about his own experience of losing his seven year old daughter Olivia to measles in 1962.
It’s a heartbreaking but important read, and has been republished on many websites over the past few weeks; I’ll put a link in the show notes to its publication on Snopes, which also includes Dahl’s harrowing recollection of his daughter’s last day, and his wife Patricia Neal’s perspective on losing Olivia and the effect it had on Roald Dahl.
So much of this is sad… that there’s an outbreak of measles in a country where it was considered eradicated, that some parents need convincing in order to vaccinate their children, that dangerous anti-vaccination misinformation – some directed at children – exists at all. Based on what I’ve been observing over the past month and a half since the US outbreak begun though, more and more members of the public are standing up for vaccination and criticising misinformation – and the media are acknowledging this sentiment.
While it’s lousy that it’s taken an outbreak to catalyse this wave of public support for vaccination, and the outbreak is unfortunately far from over, hopefully the pro-vaccination sentiment will strengthen as a result and some parents who are complacent or on the fence regarding vaccinating their children may reconsider their positions.