An important issue in the history of ecology has been the study of the relative importance of deterministic forces and processes noise in shaping the dynamics of ecological populations. We address this question by exploring the temporal dynamics of two childhood infections, measles and whooping cough, in England and Wales. We demonstrate that epidemics of whooping cough are strongly influenced by stochasticity; fully deterministic approaches cannot achieve even a qualitative fit to the observed data. In contrast, measles dynamics are extremely well explained by a deterministic model. These differences are shown to be caused by their contrasting responses to dynamical noise due to different infectious periods.