The Anti-Vaccine Movement: A Brief History


A few days ago, we wrote about the U.S. whooping cough outbreak — which is the worst in 50 years.

Pertussis can prove deadly to infants and toddlers, but healthy adults aren’t likely to succumb to this illness. (However, it’s still a good idea to get a booster shot! Details here.)

Whooping cough cases have outright ballooned in Washington; state health authorities actually declared epidemic status earlier this year, there has been a 13-fold increase in diagnoses since 2011.

Washington — though home to a lot of highly-educated, tech savvy people — is also the epicenter of the U.S. anti-vaccination movement. Over the last few decades, more and more parents there have opted out of inoculating their kids against preventable illnesses. As some 90 percent of any population must be inoculated for vaccines to work — AKA “herd immunity” — many are blaming Washington’s anti-vax camp for spurring the disease’s spread.

Of course, this brings up some questions: What the hell is the anti-vax movement, anyway? Where does it come from and, perhaps most importantly, why don’t people want to protect their kids?

To answer your queries, we’ve prepped a brief history…

Turns out, the anti-vaccine movement has been around for a very long time in America — even before the U.S. was a country.

Back in 1721, Boston was suffering from a nasty smallpox outbreak. Then, despite many Boston residents’ religious objections, Rev. Cotton Mather convinced a doctor named Zabdiel Boylston to inoculate the city against the disease with a process known as variolation — think of variolation as giving a patient a very weak form of a disease, in a controlled manner, to boost his or her immunity, and you’ve got the right idea.

Boylston first tried the method on his 6-year-old son, slave, and slave’s son and it worked, prompting him to immunize the city.

In 1722, however, immunization began generating backlash — meaning anti-vax roots started deepening even before Dr. Edward Jenner, the father of modern immunization, famously experimented with the smallpox vaccine in 1796.

What happened?

Well, Rev. Edmund Massey, an English theologian, published a paper called “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation” which basically argued that diseases were sent by god to punish evildoers.

At that time, nobody took Massey to heart too much.

Anti-vax activism started later, with Jenner’s success.

With the promotion of public vaccination campaigns started to come lots of pushback.

Enter William Tebb.

Vaccines were quite popular in the U.S. and required by many municipalities, in fact, until the British anti-vax activist visited the States in 1879, starting the Anti-Vaccination Society of America.

Two more groups, the New England Anti Compulsory Vaccination League and the Anti-vaccination League of New York City, cropped up in 1882 and 1885, respectively.

These groups successfully caused courts to repeal vaccination laws in California, Illinois, Wisconsin, and other states.

An 1902 outbreak in Cambridge, Mass., however, prompted city officials to order mandatory vaccinations.

One resident, Henning Jacobson, refused and took his claim to court. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled against him in 1905.

This landmark case was the first time the SCOTUS established the legal relationship between the government and public health law.

Fast forward to the 1970s.

Vaccines drew criticism in the West once again, when some claimed that the common diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis injection caused neurological disorders in 36 London children, prompting parents not to immunize their kids.

A similar scenario played out in England in the late 1990s.

Then, a physician alleged that the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine could cause bowel disease and autism.

Evidence later emerged suggesting that the doctor conducting the study had falsified data and had extensive conflicts of interest, which he did not report.

Both the DTP and MMR controversies have been generally discredited by the medical community, though both caused public health scares and persistent mistrust of immunizations.

Today in the U.S., one of the most prominent anti-vax backers is none other than Dr. Bob Sears, a leader of the attachment parenting movement.

And there you have it — some answers about the world of anti-vax advocates.

(Info from Pediatrics, AOL News, Discover Magazine, Warfare of Science With Theology, Forbes, and many thanks to Wikipedia ‘s beautiful bibliographies for putting us on the right path source-wise.)

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