“The incredible power of the measles vaccine, in 3 graphics,” a blog by Washington Post’s Ana Swanson, would more accurately be titled “How to mislead readers about measles, in 3 graphics.”
Look at Swanson’s first graphic, “Measles incidence over time,” showing a steady incidence of measles prior to the early 1960s, followed by a precipitous decline after the measles vaccine is introduced. She combines this with her second graphic, a map showing measles deaths in 1880, and a third graphic showing how quickly measles can spread.
All three graphics are accurate in isolation. Where Swanson went wrong was in smushing the three graphics together into a false narrative. Swanson thought she was connecting the dots to show that the measles vaccine’s “incredible power” has saved countless American lives. Those dots don’t connect, at least not in any coherent way.
Now look at the graph below, which tells an entirely different story.
Measles was indeed a horrific killer more than a century ago, as her map and my graph shows. But the number of measles deaths plummeted over the first half of the 20th century to become, by the 1960s, a benign disease in healthy children. By the time the measles vaccine was introduced, the death rate from measles had declined by 99% from its historical highs.
Everyone still got measles except it was no longer feared — to the contrary, measles was welcomed because it conferred lifetime immunity, which the medical world then praised as beneficial. Because measles was in the 1960s welcomed, “Patient Zero” — the first person to come down with measles and the focus of Swanson’s third graphic — was no menace. Patient Zero in the 1960s was in demand — when parents learned that a child in the neighborhood had measles, they often organized measles parties with the infected child as the star attraction, the better to protect their own children.
Today in affluent countries, measles deaths are rare and almost unknown in healthy children. To take a recent example, despite the many weeks of headlines that followed the measles outbreak at Disneyland in December, not one person has died as a result. Ironically, those who do die from measles today tend to be those put at risk by the measles vaccine itself: adults and infants.
Adults because measles is dangerous in adults, who don’t benefit from the lifetime protection afforded those in the pre-vaccine era. Infants because today’s vaccinated mothers have few protective antibodies to pass on to their newborns — their babies, who don’t receive the vaccine for measles until age one, are at much greater risk than those whose mothers had been infected as children.
Ana Swanson’s (@AnaSwanson) Washington Post (@washingtonpost) blog couldn’t see the forest for the trees, leading her to paint an entirely misleading portrait of the history of measles in the United States, and of its risks. She earns three Band-Aids, one for each graphic tale she told.