How “The Brady Bunch” facilitates misplaced nostalgia about measles on social media

A popular ’70s-era sitcom is once again being used to promote vaccine misinformation. On Instagram, a momfluencer known for promoting “medical freedom” shared a clip from an episode of “The Brady Bunch” called “Is There a Doctor in the House?” which features the entire family getting sick with measles. First, Peter is sent home from school with a 101.1º fever and a case of the viral disease. Carol Brady, describes his symptoms as “a slight temperature, a lot of dots and a great big smile” because that means no school for a few days. Next, Jan comes down with the measles. Then, all of the siblings develop a case of the measles.

The momfluencer says she grew up during “The Brady Bunch era,” which is “before the propaganda really set it.” She asks: What made measles go from this to the “panic” people experience today?

Some followers respond with a tone of nostalgia, yearning for “the good old days,” while others say “natural immunity is best.” This post is far from the first of its kind to use the episode as an opportunity to rally people against the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines.

And this social media trope comes at a time where measles cases are rising in parts of the United States and the United Kingdom. The clip was also shared in 2019 as the U.S. saw 1,274 cases of measles, and it continues to be used as a cultural reference to discredit the severity of a measles infection and the benefits of vaccines. When that Brady Bunch episode was released, there were more than 25,000 cases of measles and 41 deaths, NPR previously reported at the time. According to CDC data, since 2019, the number of measles cases have varied. 

In 2020 there were 13 cases; in 2022, 121, and in 2023 there were 56 cases reported. This month, the Virginia Public Health Department issued a warning to people who were at Dulles International Airport on Jan. 3 and Ronald Reagan National Airport on Jan. 4 that they might have been exposed to measles. Nine cases in Philadelphia have been reported. In the United Kingdom, cases are also on the rise. Experts cite vaccinate hesitation and waning herd immunity as the cause. In 2000, measles was eliminated in the United States. Why are some people so quick to dismiss its return, and decreasing vaccination rates, as not a big deal — like it was portrayed in the Brady Bunch?

“If you put it in any other context, people don’t accept these risks.”

In a video interview, Natasha Crowcroft, co-chair of the Measles and Rubella Partnership and senior technical advisor for Measles and Rubella at the World Health Organization (WHO), told Salon it can be difficult for people to grasp the reality of risk. She said it’s not a surprise that there is a narrative circulating around various circles, using The Brady Bunch as a cultural touchstone when the measles wasn’t a reason to panic. Crowcroft said if a child is healthy and in good shape, and has access to quality healthcare in a high-income country, that person has about a 1 in 1,000 chance of dying from measles. There’s also a one in five chance that the child will end up in the hospital. 

“If I said one and a 1000 people who eat this yogurt would get a severe allergy, that product would be off the market,” Crowcroft said. “If you put it in any other context, people don’t accept these risks.”

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Crowcroft said it does seem like many people have forgotten what a world was like when measles was common, and there is something particular about the measles and its vaccine in general — which was first developed in 1963. However, it wasn’t until 1980 when 50 states had laws that required measles immunization for school enrollment. Crowcroft attributed anti-vaccine rhetoric specifically targeting the MMR vaccine to the “Wakefield effect,” referring to when a British doctor, who has been discredited, claimed to have documented changes in behavior in children who were given the MMR vaccine, suggesting it could cause autism.

When measles was more common, it might only lead to death in severe cases but also complications like pneumonia and encephalitis, which is when the brain swells. 

“It’s a completely preventable death.”

“There’s also a late onset version of that which happens two years later after you get measles,” she said. “So there’s no doubt that measles can be extremely dangerous and it’s particularly dangerous in infants.”

No child should die of measles in 2024, Crowcroft emphasized. 

“It’s a completely preventable death, and it’s preventable in two ways,” she said. “One is by being vaccinated, but the other way is by everyone being vaccinated.” 

Children who have leukemia, she said, can’t get vaccinated — but if everyone around them is vaccinated that can protect them. This indirect shielding is known as “herd immunity,” which the WHO estimates requires about 95% of a population to be vaccinated to be effective. In many ways, even those that don’t vaccinate by choice benefit from herd immunity, though they may not realize it.

“It’s an incredible luxury we have in high income countries to say, ‘oh, I don’t think I want to have my kid vaccinated,’” she said. “It’s like, do you know what other parents are going through because they don’t want to lose another child to measles and they know how important it is?”

Crowcroft relayed stories of mothers in low-income countries walking eight hours with their kids to get one of them vaccinated, only to arrive at a clinic and find out that they’ve run out of the vaccine, or they have a 10-dose vial and don’t want to open it for one child. 

Elena Conis, a historian of medicine, said measles has always had two different reputations — where some people say it’s mild and others say it’s severe. The reputation usually depended on access to resources and healthcare. In the 1960s, measles was a much more serious disease in places that faced poverty and malnutrition. 

“It’s really important to know that its reputation of being a ‘mild’ disease emerged in this country in the early 20th century when standards of living began to improve and measles was endemic,” Conis said. In these cases, children who were infected had access to pediatric care and other regular medical care. They could get treatments, like measles immunoglobulin, which could help them actually recover and be spared of any serious effects.” 

Crowcroft said she is concerned about a resurgence in measles and that more outbreaks will occur in the future. In part because of the misinformation circulating around social media as vaccination rates among children, especially in the U.S., decline.

“It’s concerning because you have people with very good access to all sorts of platforms, who can create problems in other communities on the other side of the world where children are at an even greater risk,” she said. “We really take these vaccines for granted in a way that we shouldn’t.”

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