What spreads faster than the measles?
How about false stories about “measles parties” in Marin County?
Last week, articles began popping up online about parents in the wealthy San Francisco suburb having get-togethers to intentionally subject their unvaccinated children to youngsters who had come down with the measles.
The idea, the stories said, was to “naturally infect” children with the illness.
The articles prompted public health officials to issue warnings against any such parties. They also drew dozens of sharp comments from both sides of the vaccination debate.
Problem is… the stories simply aren’t true.
It appears to be a phenomenon of the Internet age, where stories aren’t only spun off of each other, but also tend to grow in magnitude as they twirl around the web.
How the ‘Measles Party’ Story Evolved
It all began with a Facebook post from Julie Schiffman, a Marin County mother of two unvaccinated children.
Schiffman wrote about a conversation she had with a mother of vaccinated children. That mother knew about a family with a child who had measles.
She asked if Schiffman was interested in contacting the family as a way to naturally infect her 5-year-old and 8-year-old with measles. Schiffman said “absolutely not.”
A health columnist for KQED television saw the post and contacted Schiffman. The columnist then used the anecdote to lead into a column about the debate over whether to intentionally infect unvaccinated children.
The story quotes health experts on why they feel it’s unwise to expose unvaccinated kids to diseases, especially when vaccines are available.
The column never directly stated there are “measles parties” in Marin County where children are intentionally exposed.
But that didn’t stop the story from spinning out of control.
Within days, stories began appearing on other news sites, referring to Schiffman’s conversation. Those stories took the coverage one step farther and said there were reports of measles parties in Marin County.
Then, some bloggers latched on and took a large leap forward. Some of those columns flatly stated Marin County was home to an outbreak of measles parties.
One column proclaimed, “Fun Lovin’ Marin Parents Now Hosting Measles Infection Parties.” Another declared, “We have hit peak crazy.”
Most of these stories linked back to the KQED column, but none of these authors contacted Schiffman.
In the past few days, several news organizations that hadn’t yet run the story contacted Schiffman and began to set the record straight. Those outlets included the San Francisco Chronicle and the Today show.
However, the damage had already been done.
What’s Really Happening in Marin County
Schiffman, to say the least, was surprised by how quickly the story spread.
Schiffman said the measles party invitation was a remark made in passing. The family with the ill child never offered to host any such gathering and most likely wouldn’t if they were asked.
And, she says, there aren’t any infection get-togethers in her neck of the woods.
“There are no measles parties here,” Schiffman said. “I would certainly know about them.”
Dr. Matt Willis, public health officer for Marin County, said he is also unaware of any measles parties.
He said any such party, if it were held, would be ill-advised for a number of reasons.
“It’s a bad idea on all sorts of levels,” Willis said.
First, measles is a serious illness that can have dire consequences. It still is one of the leading causes of death worldwide among young children. It killed more than 145,000 people last year, according to the World Health Organization.
“It isn’t the chicken pox,” he said.
Measles is also highly contagious, which makes it difficult to control. Willis said health officials’ goal is to eradicate the disease so that infants and people with compromised immune systems such as cancer patients, who cannot be vaccinated, don’t get it.
Finally, Willis said there’s no evidence that being “naturally exposed” to a disease like the measles is more effective than being vaccinated.
To be sure, Marin County is home to a high number of parents who are refusing to vaccinate their children for a variety of reasons. The county’s vaccination refusal rate is 6.45 percent, more than triple the state average.
In Schiffman’s case, she says her family’s doctor recommended against the vaccinations because of their family history of autoimmune troubles.
Both she and Willis say the measles party stories show it’s important for consumers to be careful about health information they receive, especially online. Un-credentialed bloggers are plentiful, and stories like this one can be picked up unchecked.
“I think the whole measles party story is an indication of the fact that we have so much available to us,” said Willis. “Parents can have trouble sifting through all that information.”
Julie Schiffman, the Marin County mother who is quoted as saying her child was invited to a measles infection party, says the stories about that incident aren’t true. There are no measles parties in Marin County. This has been a media frenzy.