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Safety & Prevention

Pediatrician Remembers Measles & Diphtheria in Charleston


By: William R. Purcell, MD, FAAP

As a practicing pediatrician for 36 years, I often worked with patients suffering with diseases that have since been widely prevented by immunizations. During my internship in 1956, we still had patients in iron lungs because of paralysis from polio.

In the early days of my pediatric training and practice and prior to newer vaccines, I personally helped care for seven children who unfortunately died from complications occurring with measles. There was no treatment for measles and its complications, as is true today, so all that we could do was provide symptomatic and supportive care.

In addition, during my pediatric training in Charleston, S.C. we often saw severely ill young children with diphtheria or whooping cough who often came from islands near Charleston and unfortunately had never received immunizations.

Almost every year there were epidemics of measles, mumps, and chickenpox and often there were some cases of pneumonia, encephalitis, or other complications. In one year, in my small-town pediatric practice, I treated 13 cases of bacterial meningitis, an illness that is rarely seen these days because of immunizations.

I was pleased when the measles vaccine became available in the 1960s. The same is true for the Hib vaccine, which became available in the late 1980s and prevented severe illnesses like bacterial meningitis as do the pneumococcal and meningococcal vaccines. I was also proud when smallpox was eradicated in 1979.

It is wonderful that younger pediatricians rarely see these problems anymore because of immunizations. Some of the pediatricians in the practice that I started have never seen a case of measles.

During the over 15 years that I served as a member of the North Carolina Senate, I was chair or co-chair of the Senate Health Care Committee. In every session of the Senate, I had meetings with organizations and individuals who wanted to weaken North Carolina laws regarding vaccines and to add exceptions to requirements for immunizations. My personal experiences as well as scientific evidence so strongly supported the value of immunizations; I never allowed their legislation to advance. For this action, I make no apologies.

Immunizations are one of the greatest public health achievements in the history of medicine. Every single child deserves the protection of all the recommended childhood immunizations!

About Dr. Purcell:

William R. Purcell, MD, FAAP is a native of Laurinburg, North Carolina, and a retired pediatrician, who practiced for 36 years. In addition, he served on the Laurinburg City Council, as Laurinburg mayor for 10 years and in the North Carolina Senate for over 15 years. In 2009, he was voted 9th most effective member of the state senate, and will receive the Senior Advocacy Award from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2015. He is married with four children and eight grandchildren.

Medicine Before Vaccines

This article is part of a series of first-person accounts from senior pediatricians about what it was like to practice pediatric medicine before vaccines for diseases like meningitis, measles and the flu were available. These articles are being published in recognition of National Immunization Awareness Month, which is held in August every year.

​William R. Purcell, MD, FAAP
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American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2015)
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