Monday, June 16, 2014

Orgies of Death - The Dangerous Tradition of Pox Parties and Measles Teas

The other day, Reuben Gaines, over at The Poxes Blog, shared some information about groups on Facebook for people to arrange for the sociopathic practice of intentionally infecting their children with vaccine-preventable diseases. Groups like Rubella Immunity Network, Vaccine-Free Immunity, Chicken Pox Immunity Network and Montreal Chicken Pox Party, among others, rather than trying to protect children from disease, actively promote giving them diseases. The participants in these groups labor under the false notions that diseases like chickenpox, rubella and measles are completely harmless and that vaccinations are worthless, are more dangerous than the diseases, or both. I'm sure they truly believe that they are doing what is best for their little ones, but unfortunately, they are dangerously wrong. While most children will come through the disease unharmed, not all will. And certainly more are harmed, and die, from disease than are injured by vaccines.

Sadly, this isn't a new thing at all. Groups crop up worldwide:
Opponents of immunization often try to infect healthy children in a controlled way by holding so-called "measles parties" with an infected child at the focus, intending to provide their own children with life-long immunity.
Even as far back as 2001 in the United Kingdom, people were holding measles parties. They're in Germany, too. But as an article in SABC News notes:
There is a considerable variation across Europe, with Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands having high immunization and low death rates, while Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Switzerland have lower rates of immunization and correspondingly more deaths.
It's a tradition that goes even farther back than just 13 years.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, these disease parties were rather popular. Dr. George Curtis wrote in 1915 about this phenomenon in the context of the feasibility of controlling measles and pertussis:
There are several reasons for this, chief of which is the existence of a widespread belief that they are both comparatively mild and harmless diseases and that the sooner children have them and are done with them, the better it is for all concerned.

This belief, I regret to say, is held by not a few physicians and by a majority of the laity. Indeed, so deeply seated is it, that in some communities, when measles is present in a neighborhood, it is customary to have what are locally known as "measles teas," where the mothers get afternoon tea and the children get the measles.

It is not necessary to say how erroneous is the belief that either one of the diseases in question is harmless or that both may be followed by serious, even fatal sequale.

However, it may not be amiss to give briefly the comparative figures for the four diseases diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles and whooping-cough for 1913. In the Registration area the deathrates were as follows: diphtheria, 18.8; scarlet fever, 8.7; measles, 192.8; whooping-cough, 10.0 per 100,000.

It is difficult to see how the belief in the harmlessness of these diseases arose; it may be due to the fact that formerly the death returns of many cases of broncho-pneumonia and other diseases following the two under consideration contained no mention of the antecedent disease to which they were due and consequently were not classified as deaths due to either. For this reason the annual mortality lists, by containing few deaths due to either measles or whooping-cough, conveyed an entirely erroneous impression.
Dr. Jean Dawson included a passage about "measles parties" in her 1914 book, The Boys and Girls of Garden City, noting what a shocking and ill-advised practice it was. And in 1923, the California Board of Health's Weekly Bulletin for May 12 also mentioned "measles teas", going on to note the dangers of measles, not least of which were the complications that followed the disease. But by far the strongest words on the practice of intentionally infecting your child with a dangerous diseases came from Prof. R. Tanner Hewlett and Dr. Austin Threlfall Nankivell's 1921 tome The Principles of Preventive Medicine:

"Twere well to spare me two or three Out of your num'rous Family"
Source: Wellcome Library, London
The prevention of other infectious diseases is considered in detail in later chapters, and no lengthy discussion need be given to it here. Mothers, however, must be warned not to expose their infants to the chances of infection, not to take them into crowded places of amusement when influenza is raging, and not, above all other things, to take them to a "measles tea." This orgy of death used at one time to be a popular diversion; a mother with measles in her home would ask her friends and neighbors to come to tea and bring their children with them, so that the infants might catch the measles and be done with it. The idea was based no doubt on the fallacy that measles is a worse disease for adults than for little children, and that it is better to acquire an attack at as early a date as possbile so as to obtain protection in after years. Every effort should be made, especially in epidemic times, to preserve the infant from infection by measles or whooping-cough.*
Now, the families holding "pox parties" and "measles teas" in the early 1900s did not have the option of vaccination as a means of providing safe immunity to their children. I can (sort of) understand why they did what they did, even though the medical community of the time knew what a horrid idea it was to intentionally get your kid sick. The better option would have been to keep their children away, as much as possible, from anyone else who was ill. In the modern age, when we have safe and effective means of protecting people from disease, there is no excuse for eschewing the safe and effective vaccines that are available (barring, of course, valid medical reasons). And I'll admit that the death rate from these diseases is not nearly as high as it was when Hewlett and Nankivell wrote their book, but I'll have more on that in a future post.

It was bad enough when anti-vaccine advocates violated Federal law by mailing varicella-contaminated lollipops and blankets through the mail. The actions of these people are, in my opinion, child abuse, and any parent who, with forethought and absolute intent, gives their child a preventable disease, ought to be held legally accountable. People like this and this (I've got screen shots of those, should the authors decide to send the posts down the memory hole) should face consequences for intentionally getting their kids sick with diseases that are known to have fairly high risks of serious complications, not to mention any damages that should result if their kids pass the infection on to others.

The absolute disregard that anti-vaccine people have for their children's health and the health of others in their community appalls me. And yet, knowing the mental contortions they will go to in order to deny science-based medicine and justify their actions, it wouldn't surprise me if some enterprising sociopath among their ranks started a tour company, specializing in trips to regions with active epidemics of disease. They could call it something like Noxious International Travel and Worldwide Infection Tours, Inc. (aka NITWIT, Inc.). Come to think of it, with the number of outbreaks of measles cause by unvaccinated people traveling to countries with endemic measles and bringing the disease back to the U.S., perhaps someone already has created just such a company. As of the June 13, 2014 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC reports 402 cases of measles in the first 23 weeks of this year. Not even six months gone and already we've had more cases of measles than any other year since endemic measles was eliminated from the U.S. I predict that before June is over, we will have had more cases of measles than the last three years combined, if not the last four years together. Catherina, over at Just the Vax, further predicts that we'll see at least one death from measles before the year is done. And we'll have anti-vaxers and their "orgies of death" to thank for that.

* Special thanks to Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections at the New York Academy of Medicine, for her assistance finding the Hewlett and Nankivell text.
References and Further Reading:


  1. It's almost as if there is nothing new under the sun, or something.

    Thanks for this write-up. It puts a lot of the nuttery in context.

    1. Yeah. Sadly, there will probably always be a cohort of people who just don't understand or refuse to accept the risks of diseases and try to make reality fit their notions, rather than adjusting their notions to fit reality.

  2. It is interesting to search the early papers on PubMed, and they keep adding more full texts all the time. One I found was on statistics, which had some strong words on the last page to those who claim measles is "mild":

    Here is a take down of someone who downplays the severity of measles, This Papa is scared of the shmeasles measles, by the Skeptical Raptor.

  3. I had never heard of scarlet fever parties, then or now. If we're not having them now, what was it that made them go away? It's not like everyone out there gets why we treat scarlet fever (to prevent the much more dangerous rheumatic fever). If we knew (and maybe it's just that scarlet fever isn't as attractive to pseudoscience loons) it could help battle against these "pox parties".

  4. Historically, this is quite interesting.

    It is crazy, given the availability of vaccines, to subject your child to the risk of a disease that could kill, or leave him or her severely disabled.

    But if vaccines are not available, and the disease is more-or-less inevitable (these "childhood illnesses" are highly infectious, and in the absence of vaccination cyclical epidemics were normal), there was much to be said for doing what you could to ensure that your child got the illness at a time when they were least likely to suffer serious consequences. Most of these diseases are more serious if acquired post-adolescence or in infancy (or before two). So, if your child was over two, and there wasn't a younger sibling in the house, it would be rational to ensure they'd been exposed to these illnesses. The risk associated with acquiring immunity would, of course, be orders of magnitude greater than the risk associated with vaccination; but the immunity acquired would be at least as good and as long-lasting, and would ensure the child wouldn't catch the disease when older (and more likely to be seriously ill or die); and maybe would ensure they were not an infection source when there was an infant in the house.

    1. Peter,

      It kind of depends on the disease. For example, those measles teas were definitely a bad idea, since measles is much more dangerous for infants than for adults. It's no picnic for adults, either, but the death rate was much higher for children. But even with something like chickenpox, where there is greater risk if you are older, pox parties were still seen as ill-advised. But like I said in the post, I can sort of understand where those parents were coming from at a time when vaccines were not an option.

  5. For those unconvinced by the decrease in mortality rates, the undeniable truth is that a measles infection carries other co-morbidities and


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