Poor Greg.

It was 1957 and Greg Cox, 7 years old, was at home in Altamont, Ill., a compress wrapped from chin to hairline. He was gazing wistfully out the window of the family’s kitchen door at his younger brother, Doug, bundled up outdoors and ready to play.

A sign was tacked to the door. “Greg can’t play,” it said. “MUMPS.”

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This was a decade before the start of the U.S. mumps vaccination program, and about 15 years before the combined vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella — MMR — was licensed in the U.S. In the early 1960s, hundreds of thousands of American children a year contracted those diseases.

Today, thanks to vaccines, the number of annual mumps cases ranges from hundreds to a few thousand, depending on whether there’s a big outbreak. Measles, a more dangerous disease, is even more rare — a super bad year, like 2014, saw 667 cases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, numbers like these make experts worry that the rise of anti-vaccine sentiment is threatening the herd immunity used to keep vaccine-preventable diseases in check.

But that’s today. Back in the late 1950s, there were only a few vaccines to protect against childhood diseases. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was new and widely viewed as a miracle. There was also smallpox vaccine, which drove that disfiguring and sometimes fatal disease out of existence around the world by 1980. The U.S. vaccinated children against smallpox until 1972, but the last domestic cases occurred in 1949.

The 1960s and 1970s would be a golden era for the development and introduction of vaccines to protect against childhood diseases.

Back when Greg and Doug Cox were little, though, kids developed immunity to things like measles, chickenpox, and mumps the hard way. They got sick, and it was no fun.

Mumps viruses attack the salivary glands, creating profound swelling in the cheek and jaw. Sometimes the disease affects both cheeks, sometimes just one. In male teens, it can also cause painful swelling of the testicles, which on rare occasions led to sterility. Some children who had mumps developed encephalitis, a dangerous inflammation of the brain.

When Greg contracted the mumps, his father, Charlie Cox, saw an opportunity. He and his wife, Jennie Lou, owned a small weekly newspaper in Altamont at the time. There wasn’t always a lot of news back then but there were pages to fill. So he asked his sons to pose. He even plumped out Greg’s cheeks a bit more by stuffing some cotton balls in them.

Greg and Doug Cox 2019
Greg, left, and Doug Cox re-create the photo their father took in 1957. Courtesy Greg Cox

Greg, now 69 and reached recently by phone by STAT, still remembers mumps as being pretty painful. He also remembers having measles and chickenpox, which were “very itchy.”

Charlie Cox submitted the picture of his mumps-suffering son to the Associated Press, which distributed the photo to its member newspapers. Before long, “get well” cards were pouring in from around the world.

“They were different times,” said Greg, now a naval vessel engineer living in Covington, La.

His brother, Doug Cox, now 66 and an actor based in Burbank, north of Los Angeles, knows he had measles and chickenpox, but doesn’t think he caught the mumps; neither does his mother, who turned 97 last weekend. He also recalls taking the picture with his brother.

“I just remember I had to stand outside and it was starting to snow and I just remember it being real cold,” Doug Cox said.

What Dr. Jerome Klein remembers from that time is regularly treating children suffering the serious side effects of mumps and other now mostly forgotten diseases.

Klein spent 60 years as a pediatric infectious diseases specialist in Boston. Growing up, he knew two people who died from measles — a young cousin and the brother of his best friend, who contracted measles and died within weeks of joining the navy.

“It was scary in the sense that it was real. People did suffer,” said Klein, who retired in 2017. “We knew the consequences.”

He also remembers treating young patients comatose with measles encephalitis. “And then they would wake up and the parents were thrilled. But we never knew how many deficits they would have from that period,” noting the brain inflammation always left “a fingerprint.”

The rise of anti-vaccination sentiment is tragic, Klein said.

Greg Cox went on to have a family. He said his two children — a son, now 28 and a daughter, 25 — got all the recommended vaccines.

“We had no hesitation at all,” he said. “It wasn’t even a discussion to vaccinate or not to.”

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  • I had measles at age 7 in 1950. My dad was retired military. I could not be admitted to the hospital due to the possibility of infecting others. The doctors said there was nothing that could be done for me anyway. I had to wait it out. I remember hallucinating and seeing the bookcases in my parents’ room (where I was kept) repeatedly falling on me. I also saw an orchestra of personified instruments playing in my backyard. The cello was particularly memorable. My grandmother lived with us as both my parents worked and was my caretaker for two long dreadful weeks. I would never with that on anyone! Needless to say, my children were fully vaccinated.

  • I had chicken pox –a severe head to toe case — as a child and I also got shingles last year. Fortunately, not too bad and I caught it early still it was about a week or 10 days of pain and discomfort.

  • almost all of my 3rd grade class had mumps, i did not come down with it, when i had chicken pox, only had about ten, never broke out again after the first day, never caught either type of measles either, i am 66. wonder how common this was in those my age. my 3 children all got chicken pox, and were around others with them after having them, but their titers come back negative, i know the virus is supposed to hang out in your nerve endings ever after, is it possible some people clear it without developing detectable antibodies or is the test just not accurate? none of us has ever had shingles. also, there is a pending lawsuit against the mmr manufacturer for falsifying data for the mumps potion of the vaccine, there seem to be many outbreaks in totally vaccinated populations that are college age, so maybe the vaccine is defective

    • I can’t speak specifically re: H. zoster, but I had the series of Hep B vaccines c. 1987 after Recombivax came out. Some time later I was tested, and was negative for antibody. I was told if I were ever challenged by virus, I would rapidly develop antibodies via anamnesis. I also received BCG when I was about 12; when I entered my residency I was forced to get a PPD (tuberculin) test, and to my surprise I tested negative.

  • I had chicken pox which was pure torture. My whole body was covered with itchy spots and left some scars on my face. I also had mumps which was painful but less memorable except for the fact that I gave it to my brother and now he is deaf in one ear!

    • Oh and I also got shingles last year. Fortunately, not too bad and I caught it early still it was about a week or 10 days of pain and discomfort.

  • I come from a large family (Vatican roulette;-) born from 1940 to 1960. All but the youngest contracted MMR and chicken pox. When one of us came down with one, she would put all of us that hadn’t had them yet in a room together so she could get it over with all at once. I had a playmate who contracted polio the year before the vaccine was widely available and he has a pronounced limp to this day. Our parents stood in line to get us vaccinated. Somehow, I avoided contracting mumps when all of my siblings did. I had shingles in my 50’s though. When my doctor saw this in my medical history he immediately ordered an MMR for me. He said that mumps in adults is extremely painful and with a guy my age, potentially fatal, and with many parents avoiding vaccines, mumps could make a comeback. Wouldn’t you know it, this past February, there was an outbreak at a church in a neighboring town (religious exemptions? Dunno) and at the county lockup.

    https://wgntv.com/2019/02/26/mumps-outbreak-reported-in-mchenry-county/

  • Born in 1953, I experienced all of the childhood diseases and was fortunate not to develop any sequelia. My primary MD has hearing loss from the measles. My father in law had polio.
    And my children were vaccinated for everything.

  • I had mumps when I was 14 years old (1952) and developed encephalitis. I remember it well. My parents had been away someplace, and when they came home, I told them of the terrible headache and stiff neck I was experiencing. They call the family doctor who lived a few miles away, and he came to our home in the country very late at night. Unfortunately for my headache, the doctor, a former military band member, spotted my clarinet and began to play before examining me. It was such agony! When he got around to examining me, he said I had to be taken to the hospital immediately. I was put in an isolation ward–the only patient in there–and the doctor told me I had a 50% chance of recovery. Not something that a 14-year-old would be told today! The headache was so excruciating that the odds didn’t bother me, I would have died gladly. I was in the hospital for about a week.

  • I seem to remember reading an interview with Allan Sherman (remember him?) and he said he’d developed mumps orchitis.

  • This story offers a good perspective. I’m a few years younger than Greg and, like my siblings and most neighbors, had all 4 diseases (MMR and chickenpox) before I was 12. They were considered unavoidable then.
    The scariest moment around mumps occurred when a neighbor’s dad was taken away in an ambulance in the middle of the night. He’d never had mumps as a child, caught it from one of his kids, and almost died. I don’t know what if any long-term consequences he suffered.
    Something for antivax parents to think about 50 years later: grown men who lack immunity bc they were not vaccinated are at risk of smaller testicles and lower sperm counts. And today’s unvaccinated boys are tomorrow’s grown men.

  • I got mumps on one side in 1955 and then lost all hearing above 2,000 hz in the ear on that side. Is that common damage after mumps?

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