Looking back 100 years into the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention mortality statistics, 27% of all deaths in the USA during 1908 were children under 5 years of age, in total 190,000 children died before their 5th birthday. In that year measles killed 4611 people which equated to 1 death per 10,000 people. Around the world that year in some cities such as Glasgow, Rome and St. Petersburg the rate was as high as 1 in 1000. Measles was one of the main causes of childhood death, but there was a whole host of other diseases including scarlet fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, croup and meningitis which all contributed to the poor survival of children at the time. The potential for saving a great many lives by minimising the incidence of these diseases was recognised at the time and medicine had reached a point where something could be done about them. Over the following decades vaccines were introduced for each of them and childhood survival in the countries that could employ them was greatly improved. Measles was declared eliminated from the USA in 2000, however the World Health Organisation reported that globally, 750,000 children still died that year from measles. A global vaccination effort to reduce that number achieved a 75% reduction by 2007, showing us the great life saving power of the vaccine, with continued efforts measles may soon be globally eradicated.
The combined Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine was first used in the USA in 1971, and introduced into the UK in 1988. It was not the first combination vaccine, Diphtheria Tetanus and Pertussis vaccines combined to create the DTP vaccine in the 1940's and many other combinations have since been made in an effort to reduce the total number of jabs a child has to endure. In order to keep measles at bay 95% of the population must be immune to it, if the number drops below that then incidences quickly begin to rise and child deaths are the inevitable result.
In 1996, a doctor named Andrew Wakefield was paid vast sums of money by a solicitor to find a link between the MMR vaccine and Autism after some parents raised concerns about the vaccine. The following year Dr. Wakefield filed a patent for a 'safer' single measles vaccine, not combined with the mumps and rubella vaccines. A year later in 1998 The Lancet published a scientific paper by Dr. Wakefield about a study of 12 children with developmental disorders in which the parents of 8 children believed that MMR vaccination was the trigger for their child's autism. No conclusive proof was given other than this speculation by the parents. Dr. Wakefield then held a press conference in which he recommended all parents give their children the single measles vaccine rather than MMR, of course he failed to mention that he happened to own a patent for the single vaccine. The Daily Mail led media campaigns supporting Dr. Wakefield in attacking the MMR vaccine despite the lack of conclusive evidence behind his claims consequently bringing 100 years of vaccine development into question.
Understandably parents who had no real understanding of the scale of death that would be incurred without these vaccines began to consider whether they should protect their child by giving them no vaccinations at all. Many parents insisted their child only have the single vaccine, but many also neglected to give their children any protection at all. In 2003 the UK vaccination rate in 2 year olds had dropped to 78.9%, far below the 95% required to keep measles at bay in the population.
In 2004 Dr. Wakefield's source of funding was exposed, revealing that he had made the conclusion he was paid to make. The editor of The Lancet, Richard Horton also admitted that the study had been fatally flawed and apologised for publishing it. 10 of the 13 authors listed in the study publicly retracted the association between MMR and autism. But the damage had already been done. Parents were already suspicious of the MMR and vaccines in general, and no campaign was launched by the Daily Mail or the other papers to correct the damage they had done.
In 2006 the vaccination rate still stood below the critical level at 82% and the first victim of measles in the UK in 14 years died as a result. In 2008 the total number of clinically confirmed cases of measles recorded by the Health Protection Agency was 1348, compared to just 56 ten years earlier. Of those 1348 cases, two children died. Ironically the Daily Mail reported at the end of 2008 on the fear of an upcoming measles epidemic, an epidemic it will have had a large part in creating, though they don't mention that part in the article. The Daily Mail itself has been criticised by the government's Chief Scientific Adviser and others for its continued misleading of the public on this issue. Further criticism of Dr. Wakefield's study have now been made with a Sunday Times investigation finding that his conclusion was based on faked data.
A catchup campaign was launched by the Department of Health in August 2008 to attempt to restore the vaccination rate to 95% and hopefully prevent an inevitably fatal measles epidemic. The World Health Organisation's Measles Initiative aims to reduce global deaths and eventually eradicate the disease, you can help them by donating to the American Red Cross.