Washington Post’s fractured measles history

“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.

Our rating

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.





  1. Laraine Abbey, MS, CNS, RN emeritus says:

    You said well, as always. Thanks to better nutrition and hygeine measles is not a feared disease in the USA.


  2. So where did Ana Swanson go wrong? You replaced her three graphs with one that is showing death rates. Measles did not become a less lethal disease, it just happened that we have better treatments available now to treat them, but they are costly compared to vaccines. Measles vaccine (unlike the chicken pox vaccine) is expected to give long immunity, probably life long immunity. So I am not sure what the point is. If you are all for disease parties, just have it. Measles is freely available in Philippians.


    • You are mistaken in believing that the measles vaccine offers lifelong immunity. In some it is entirely ineffective — a dud — and in others it wanes in effectiveness over time, creating a false sense of security in the vaccinated. If you are able to provide evidence of life-long immunity, please do.

      You are also mistaken in attributing the lower death rate entirely to better treatments. The major determinant of measles deaths was poverty — most of the deaths occurred in poor children, with nutrition being the dominant factor. Measles is and was a benign disease among healthy, well-fed children.


    • Measles isn’t a disease that is treated until complications arise. Complications that signal the body isn’t doing its job. Your narrative would suggest the measles was something you would visit the doctor and get a medication in order to “survive it.” It doesn’t work like that.


  3. First of all, I am thankful for not deleting my post, and in addition you replying to it, Mr. Solomon. That does not happen in many other anti-vax groups, in my experience. So, that in itself has raised my respect to your position significantly.

    I am sure nutrition also has played a role, of course. But here is the problem, it is the complications associated with measles that kills people or put them in hospital. On this link http://www.bbc.com/news/health-15999492 during the measles outbreak in Western Europe in 2011 (83 % of the total 26,000 cases) six of the nine people died are from France. There were 7288 hospitalizations, that cannot all come from Eastern Europe (from the 17% of patients – 4420 cases). A substantial number of Western European patients also were admitted in the hospital. Western Europe is a very good for health and child care, and such a huge number of hospital admissions (28 % of infected people) and low mortality show that improved medical care is a major factor in reducing the mortality. Nutrition alone cannot explain why 7200 people ended up in the hospital. But I think both, better medical care and better nutrition play a part generally. That is one example. About life long immunity for measles from vaccines, I was quoting Dr Samuel Katz who invented the measles vaccine. Here is the quote. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130433634 He actually thinks only measles and polio could give life long immunity.


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