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Wellcome Film of the Month: Cat’s got the measles and the measles have got YOU!

3 May, 2013

“Cat’s got the Measles and the Measles have got YOU!

This playground rhyme features in our film of the month,Protect your child against measles 1980, a Health Education Authority film aimed at mothers. We should also bear in mind that World Immunization Week is in April (19-26) and there is currently a measles outbreak in the UK with one known death.

This film is one of a series that formed part of a government-sponsored campaign to promote take-up of immunisation against polio, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough in the UK. A companion film, Immunisation, a Lifetime of Protection, 1980, is also in the collection. There’s no escaping the fact that young children are the ones who are the most vulnerable to measles; a fact capitalised in this film with ample illustrations of poorly children who have measles with differing levels of severity. We see a little boy and the narrator says that by this age (2 years old) children should have been vaccinated against measles. Both films reveal the difficulty of persuading parents to get their children immunised; in one there are vox pops of spokespeople (mostly mothers) communicating their confusion about whether to take their children to be immunised or not. With this level of uncertainty, it’s not surprising that within Europe, measles is still endemic. In the film, it is the young schoolchildren themselves who talk most vividly about their experiences of measles whilst painting pictures of measles-effected children – in their own words it is a horrible illness.

Immunisation is a great success story for medicine in the 20th century. However, public health officers have historically struggled with take-up to create the necessary herd immunity. Looking at a range of films on this topic (see examples in the filmography below), public health experts appear to believe that this is down to communication. An example made by the Medical Health departments of Bermondsey and Camberwell in London, The empty bed from 1937, illustrates the devastating effect of contracting diphtheria – a child dies and the audience is invited to compare non-immunisation with having a loaded gun pointed at you. The war years saw the British Government ramp up its efforts to get the population vaccinated against smallpox and diphtheria (so as not to deflect medical resources away from the war effort). Post-war, the march of scientific discovery especially in virology in the US meant that two important vaccines for polio (developed by first Jonas Salk, then Albert Sabin) effectively eradicated polio from the post-war baby boom generation. John Franklin Enders, a key scientist in the development of the poliovirus became a Nobel Laureate for this work (which was used by Salk); he then worked on identifying the measles virus. Another prolific American scientist, Maurice Hilleman, is attributed with developing 36 vaccines including a measles vaccine. By the early 1980s, the immunised children of the post-war era have become parents; they are the ones targeted in the films mentioned above.

Up to date information about Measles immunisation as part of the MMR or combined vaccine is available from NHS Choices.

Filmography of Immunisation:

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 8 May, 2013 11:10 am

    There is a distinction between the creation of efficacious vaccines and the creation of effective mechanisms to deliver — the success of immunisation campaigns can only be assured once these two elements are brought together, after a series of local social, political and economic factors have been considered. The lack of take-up, therefore, is not just a result of the target population (as many ahistorical assessments often assume), but an incapability of many governments to create equitable structures for universal healthcare; structures that win the respect, trust and support of civilian stakeholders. Official inability to engage with communities that they seek to serve (but often end up ordering around) results in lack of clarity and distrust, creating an ideal breeding ground for opposition to immunisation with vaccines about which doubts have been created (the MMR crisis is a classic example). If we seek to look critically at problems with immunisation uptake, we need to gaze beyond those who oppose — a deeper, honest self-criticism is required on the part of all those who believe they are the custodians of science and public health in this country and elsewhere. After all, the hand that imparts the vaccine is often regarded as being more important than the vaccine itself during the course of immunisation campaigns!

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