We've hired football pitches, shivered at ice skating rinks and spent fortunes at theme parks in pursuit of the perfect childrens' party. And are the darlings grateful? By daybreak they're already working on their Christmas lists. So maybe you can't blame a group of parents for coming up with a party with a difference. Popular in the 1950s before mass immunisation, the measles party is making a comeback. If you're worried about media reports of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causing autism then you can join a network of parents who are trying to infect their children naturally with these diseases. As soon as little Charlie in Huddersfield is diagnosed with measles, his parents are buying chocolate swiss rolls and ringing round, inviting the un-vaccinated to party. And instead of those throwaway party bags, your child will be taking home an infectious disease they may never forget.
And this is the first of many problems I have with this bonkers idea. Measles is not a cute, harmless kiddy's disease. In the developing world, where mothers say, "never count your children until after the measles", the disease kills 800,000 youngsters a year. If you think your children are too well-nourished and robust to succumb, think again. An outbreak in the US between 1989 and 1991 saw more than 55,000 cases of measles and 123 children die from it.
Vaccinations are given to protect children because for every age group the complications of the vaccine are fewer than from the real disease. The risk of measles causing encephalitis, an inflammation of the coverings around the brain, is one in 2,000 children for the real disease versus one in 1m for the vaccine. Before vaccines, mumps was the most common cause of viral meningitis in children. It can also cause deafness.
And as for rubella, symptoms in kids may usually be mild but one in 5,000 will get encephalitis. If a pregnant woman who is not immune is exposed to little Charlie in Huddersfield, her baby is likely to be born dead, or at best potentially deaf, blind and with learning difficulties.
Forget the purity and beauty of natural immunity. Vaccines offer a dose of the real infection modified so that it does less damage. If you're worried your child can't cope with three weakened vaccines at a time, you probably don't realise that a sore throat or cold can expose him or her to between four and 10 infections.
At the Public Health Laboratory Service in Collindale they are deeply unimpressed with the outbreak of measles parties. Dr Liz Miller, head of the immunisation division, is concerned at who exactly will be catching what. "The vast majority of measles cases turn out not to be measles," she says. "So you may be under the false impression that your child has had measles."
If your child does catch measles, Dr Miller is worried about who he or she will infect. "If you have a child under the age of one at home then this child will not have been immunised. Children under the age of one are much more at risk from a complication of measles called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis."
This is a disease of the nervous system caused by the measles virus chronically infecting the brain. Your child will recover from the initial measles infection, but about seven years later will gradually become unwell and finally die. Part of my own rabid support of vaccinations comes from seeing a child dying of this bizarre condition when I was a medical student.
This isn't to say that I skip along with my own children to get them vaccinated. There is something about offering a small, plump arm to a needle that I hate. But I do it because the evidence is there that, while no vaccine is 100% safe, childhood diseases are more dangerous. There is no dispute in the medical community about this except for one research group in north London who link the MMR vaccine to autism and bowel inflammation. International expert groups have said they're wrong. The US, Canada and more than 35 European countries use the MMR vaccine. Japan, which uses single doses (thought by the north London research group to reduce the risk of autism) had 79 deaths from measles from 1992-7. In England we haven't had any for a decade.
The answer to concerns about the MMR vaccine is to weigh up the risks and benefits, not to force your kids to mix with spotty children they don't know in some misguided attempt to make them sick "naturally". "It reminds me of survival of the fittest,"says Dr Miller. "I thought we'd moved on from there. Not all children are equally well-equipped to cope with these diseases. Vaccination was brought in to give everyone a chance to be protected."
Sarah Boseley is away