Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine,
University of Manchester
27th May 2014 1-2pm
Seminar Room 2.57
‘To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? That is the question’: Measles, risk, and making sense of medical uncertainty
In 1986 the former British fighter pilot, poet and novelist, Roald Dahl, published a piece on measles for the Sandwell Health Authority. The piece, entitled ‘Measles: A Dangerous Illness’, described his personal experience with the infectious disease. In 1962 his daughter Olivia had contracted the illness, later becoming unconscious and subsequently dying in hospital that same day. Informed by this experience, Dahl’s account appealed to those parents who ‘either out of obstinacy or ignorance or fear’ failed to get their child vaccinated against the infection. The vaccine Dahl was referring to was made available in Britain in the mid-1960s, just a few years after his daughter’s death, and was part of a national campaign intended to eradicate the ‘indigenous’ disease. Yet as one can see from Dahl’s protest twenty years on, Britain had not come close to eradication during this period.
In this paper I examine Britain’s troubled history with measles and its vaccine. Using government archives, medical literature, and national and local newspapers, I argue that, rather than a problem of ‘ignorance’, as many contemporary figures suggested, this reflected a context of medical uncertainty found in both the minds of the medical establishment and the British public. A consequence of scientific, political, and cultural factors, this uncertainty not only lead to low levels of immunisation, but threatened to alter the severity and demographics of the disease in potentially disturbing ways. This case study provides a window to examine medical uncertainty as both a scientific reality and a cultural construct, and to address what happens when medical uncertainty emerges into the public domain. In examining measles in a British context I not only illuminate a hidden history, but also provide historical context to contemporary debates surrounding the MMR vaccine.