Measles Madness

A book promoting measles as a child-friendly disease has been soundly criticised around the world, in both mainstream and social media, as a “misleading” danger to children and their parents.

Originally self-published a year ago by Queensland-based anti-vaccination campaigner Stephanie Messenger, Melanie’s Marvellous Measles was republished in January of this year by independent publishing service, Trafford Publishing, an organisation that offers “print-on-demand” services for authors who wish to be published, and who can stump up the fees to do so. The company also offers design and marketing services, all at various prices according to the level of service provided. This process used to be called “vanity press”.

Its reappearance in this format was the reason for the latest uproar.

Messenger’s Measles is promoted as a book that “takes children aged 4-10 on a journey of discovering about the ineffectiveness of vaccinations, while teaching them to embrace childhood disease, heal if they get a disease, and build their immune systems naturally”.

The blurb for the book, as it appears on online bookseller Amazon’s site, adds that the book assists children “to know they don’t have to be scared of childhood illnesses, like measles and chicken pox. There are many health messages for parents to expand on about keeping healthy.” It then says that “an information pack on vaccinations” is available free in Australia.

Messenger’s anti-vaccination stance

Messenger claims that, 30 years ago, her one-year-old son died of vaccine-related issues: “Vaccination killed him, I have no doubt. If he crawled under the sink and drank the same poisonous concoction of heavy metals, formaldehyde, foreign proteins, multiple viruses and a host of other toxins, the emergency room would have called it poisoning. Because it was injected into his body, it’s called ‘a coincidence’!”

Doctors at the time, however, suggested that her son was suffering from a genetic condition called Alexander’s Disease.

The Diluted Thinking blog, authored by Christine Bayne, puts a different spin on Messenger’s story: “Stephanie Messenger began her crusade against vaccination after she tragically lost her young child to a medical condition. To this day she states that her child died as a direct result of receiving the triple-antigen vaccine. Stephanie has widely disseminated her story on the internet, and the book Vaccination Roulette which she co-authored, includes her story. … According to Stephanie, she never received a firm diagnosis of her son’s condition. Stephanie made the link to vaccination after noticing an adverse reaction to the triple-antigen vaccine, and then watching the wholly discredited Dr Robert S Mendelsohn on the Phil Donahue show talking about the dangers of vaccination. Stephanie admits in Vaccination Roulette that doctors looking after her son suspected a condition called Alexander’s Disease. It is a rare inherited condition and if Stephanie were to research what we know of this disease today and revisited what she went through over 30 years ago in a rational manner, I suspect that she would no longer be able to claim that vaccination was the cause of her son’s tragic death.

“Stephanie continues to repost her story to various internet forums and encourages others to copy it and pass it around. It is indeed a sad story, and one with a sadder legacy still of encouraging others to risk their own children’s lives, and the lives of others, by not vaccinating.”

An alternative view to Messenger’s story appeared in an online comment, posted on Dan Buzzard’s Journal of Skepticism soon after Messenger’s book first appeared. A person claiming to be Messenger’s sister stated that Stephanie’s baby did have a genetic disease passed on from his father – Messenger’s first husband, which would explain why her later children by a different father were not at risk of the disease.

The measles book

Melanie’s Marvellous Measles relates the story of school-age Melanie’s experience with measles and how an unvaccinated friend, Tina, is worried for her and of the implications of catching the disease. Tina’s mother reassures her that “Firstly, measles don’t run and catch you or hurt you … For most children it is a good thing to get measles … Many wise people believe measles makes the body stronger and more mature for the future.”

When Tina suggests she visit Melanie in order to catch measles, her mother says that that’s “a great idea”. Her mother also espouses the benefits of Vitamin A from carrots and melon to help Melanie recover.

Unfortunately for Tina, she doesn’t catch measles, but another schoolmate, the vaccinated Jared, does, and he doesn’t have anywhere near a marvellous time as Melanie.

The anti-vaccination and pro-disease book has been roundly condemned by the medical profession and the public, with AMA President Steve Hambleton suggesting the publishers “should be ashamed of themselves”.

Online sellers have also been criticised for carrying the book. Many subsequently (and sometimes regretfully) removed the book from their lists. Bookworld (formerly Borders), took the book down following complaints, with a spokesperson telling News.com reporter Tory Shepherd that they listened to their customers and delisted the book. “(We) usually don’t delist unless it is illegal,” he said. “But in this case we listened to our customers and believe they have a fair argument and have removed the titles.”

At time of writing, only Amazon (US, UK and Canada), Book Depository (US and UK) and Powells Books (US) still had it available.

When the recent controversy erupted, those sites were bombarded with negative reviews of the book. As of mid-February, there were 187 low rating reviews (1 out of 5 score) on Amazon UK versus 15 high rating ones (5 out of 5). However, most of those latter were also highly critical, with the high rating designed to lure potential purchasers.

Other issues

But apart from the book’s misleading and dangerous content, there are two other aspects that have raised the ire of commentators.

One is the cover, which depicts a very happy Melanie in her garden chasing butterflies and exposing her spotted tummy. This image suggests that you can be exultant while having measles, in exact antithesis to the fact that the disease normally renders the patient bed-ridden, and can cause extremely serious and sometimes fatal results – up to 200,000 people currently die each year from measles.

The other aspect which has caused outrage is the fact that the book’s title mirrors the title of an emotional book by children’s author Roald Dahl: George’s Marvellous Medicine.

Dahl himself wrote vehemently against the anti-vaccination lobby, not least because his own seven-year-old daughter Olivia succumbed to measles encephalitis.

A few years after her death, Dahl wrote a short article recounting her rapid decline and his concern at the argument against vaccination in Measles: A Dangerous Illness. The full text of this article, plus a strong and well-argued criticism of Messenger’s book, can be found in a blog by John Stumbles titled Stephanie’s Measles Mischief.

Messenger has criticised the response to the book, telling Shepherd that “Only people who are not in favour of a free press or free speech would (want it banned).”

“Ms Messenger said she was just trying to give people more information about vaccination and disease through fiction aimed at children,” Shepherd reports.

This is not Messenger’s only foray into children’s health books. Last year she also self-published Sarah Visits a Naturopath which has the blurb: “This book exposes children aged 4-10 years to the idea that they create most of their ill health by the choices they make. It encourages them to listen to the messages their bodies give them. Sarah visits a naturopath to get advice on staying well according to nature’s laws.”