Weir Only Human
Health and medical scholars have described vaccination as one of the top ten achievements of public health in the 20th Century. Yet, opposition to vaccination has existed as long as vaccination itself. It’s referred to as vaccine hesitancy, which means a reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated or to have one’s children vaccinated and it’s identified by the World Health Organization as one of the top ten global health threats of 2019. Additionally, arguments against vaccination are contradicted by overwhelming scientific consensus about the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
Critics of vaccination have taken a variety of positions for many years, including opposition to the smallpox vaccine in England and the United States in the mid to late 1800s, and the resulting anti-vaccination leagues; as well as more recent vaccination controversies such as those surrounding the safety and efficacy of the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough) immunization, the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, and the use of a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal.
Widespread smallpox vaccination began in the early 1800s, following English physician and smallpox vaccine pioneer, Dr. Edward Jenner’s cowpox experiments, in which he showed that he could protect a child from smallpox if he infected him or her with lymph from a cowpox blister. Jenner’s ideas were novel for his time, however, and they were met with immediate public criticism. The rationale for this criticism varied, and included sanitary, religious, scientific, and political objections. For some parents, the smallpox vaccination induced fear because it included scoring the flesh on a child’s arm and inserting lymph from the blister of a person who had been vaccinated about a week earlier. Some objectors, including the local clergy, believed that the vaccine was “unchristian” because it came from an animal. Other anti-vaccinators had a general mistrust of medicine and doctors.
Skeptics were suspicious of the vaccine’s efficacy, believing that smallpox resulted from decaying matter in the atmosphere. For still others, the whole idea of vaccination interfered with their personal liberty and independence. That feeling was exacerbated when the government policies began to mandate vaccination.
Nevertheless, the Vaccination Act of 1853 ordered compulsory vaccination for infants up to 3 months old, and the Act of 1867 extended this age requirement to 14 years, adding penalties for vaccine refusal. The laws were met with immediate resistance from citizens who demanded the right to control their bodies and those of their children. The Anti Vaccination League and the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League formed in response to the mandatory laws, and numerous anti-vaccination journals sprang up.
Toward the end of the 19th Century, smallpox outbreaks in the United States led to vaccine campaigns and related anti-vaccine activity. The Anti Vaccination Society of America was founded in 1879, following a visit to America by leading British vaccination foe and author of anti-vaccination books, William Tebb. Two other leagues, the New England Anti Compulsory Vaccination League (1882) and the Anti-vaccination League of New York City (1885) followed. Those against vaccination waged unsuccessful court battles to repeal vaccination laws in several states including California, New York, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
In 1902, following a smallpox outbreak, the board of health of the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, mandated all city residents to be vaccinated against smallpox. Henning Jacobson, a Cambridge resident, refused vaccination on the grounds that the law violated his right to care for his own body in his own way. In turn, the city filed criminal charges against him. After losing his court battle locally, Jacobson appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1905 the Court found in the state’s favor, ruling that the state could enact compulsory laws to protect the public in the event of a communicable disease. This was the first U.S. Supreme Court case concerning the power of states in public health law. It’s important to keep in mind that scientific evidence for the effectiveness of large-scale vaccination campaigns is well established.
Such campaigns helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed as many as one in seven children in Europe and have nearly eradicated polio. As a more modest example, infections caused by Haemophilus influenza (Hib), a major cause of bacterial meningitis and other serious diseases in children, have decreased by over 99% in the US since the introduction of a vaccine in 1988. It is estimated that full vaccination, from birth to adolescence, of all US children born in a given year would save 33,000 lives and prevent 14 million infections.
Although the time periods have changed, the emotions and deep-rooted beliefs, whether philosophical, political, or spiritual, that underlie vaccine opposition have remained relatively consistent since Edward Jenner introduced vaccination. It’s not hard to understand why people would be skeptical, even afraid, during the early days of medical science. However, given the advances in medicine during the past century, undeniably responsible for longer life spans, it’s difficult to believe that some people still look upon vaccination as injurious to health. I suppose it’s even more baffling that religion would play a role in whether parents vaccinate their kids. A physician friend of mine put it this way, “Parents should only vaccinate the children they want to keep.”
Bob Weir is a veteran of 20 years with the New York Police Dept. (NYPD), ten of which were performed in plainclothes undercover assignments. Bob began a writing career about 16 years ago and had his first book published in 1999. He also became a syndicated columnist under the title “Weir Only Human.”