Thursday, February 04, 2010
Measles and the Papacy
So, Pope Benedict will visit Britain later this year (DV).
Pope John Paul II visited in May 1982. He celebrated an open-air mass on Coventry airfield. It was planned to be a huge event, with hundreds of thousands expected to attend.
A local military unit set up a field hospital. An RC colleague organised medical cover, and asked me to volunteer to be there in case of emergency. I accepted, and spent the day in the field hospital.
An anaesthetist colleague was tasked to follow the Pope at a discrete distance, carrying an emergency bag of resuscitation equipment.
It was a hot day, but the numbers attending were much less than anticipated, in tens, not hundreds, of thousands. I had only a distant view of the occasion; the hospital was away to one side of the airfield. I spent much of the day admiring the tents, equipment and vehicles of the hospital.
There was a slow flow of people needing some medical attention: faints, sickness, sunburn. One middle aged man was suspected of acute myocardial infarction, and was sent on to hospital without delay.
Then, about mid-afternoon, I was asked to see a boy of maybe 7. I heard him cough before I saw him. His mother was anxious. He had been hot and off-colour when he got up, but the family had decided to come. During the day he had got worse, complaining of shivering, headache, and coughing.
He was flushed and hot, with pink conjunctivae. He sneezed several times. His chest sounded a little musical. Otherwise general examination showed little of note
But, looking in his mouth, I found small pink spots on the inside of the cheeks. Each spot had a tiny white centre, like a grain of salt.
Koplik's Spots: this was measles, in its early stage. The rash would appear the next day.
Take him home to bed, lots to drink, maybe a junior aspirin if he became too hot. Call the general practitioner tomorrow for a home visit.
Two other children in the family, younger, neither had had measles. More trouble ahead: expected incubation about 10 days.
Measles is very infectious: all other children to stay away.
I think that was the last time I saw measles in Britain; for sure it was the last time I saw Koplik's spots.
I may be in the last generation of doctors familiar with measles.
Measles vaccination has stopped the biennial epidemics; only sporadic cases occur now, in unimmunised children and young adults.
Measles is a nasty illness, causing much discomfort and distress. It is not a mild passing infection of young children. It has a significant risk of complications, notably otitis media and bronchitis; and encephalitis, rare maybe, but always serious, often fatal.
In the tropics it has been a major killer of children. Europeans brought measles to America, with devastating consequences for some indigenous peoples.
Measles vaccination is a wonderful advance in childrens' health. It is safe and effective. Measles is not extinct, and may never be. All children should be protected.
No-one familiar with measles will question the benefits of immunisation.
Let us petition the Pope. Maybe he could conduct a service of thanksgiving for the blessing of immunisation, and for the medical science which created it.
It would surely reflect well on the papacy if he did.