History of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

From the 18th Century to the COVID-19 Pandemic

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It may surprise many that there has always been an anti-vaccine ("anti-vaxxing") movement, stemming back from the development of the first vaccine in the 18th century right through to the COVID-19 vaccines of the 21st century.

A rise of the movement stems in part from a general lack of understanding of how vaccines work. On top of this, the dissemination of misinformation fuels beliefs that vaccines cause unspoken harms or that vaccinations infringe personal, political, or religious rights.

Baby being vaccinated by physician as mother holds baby in place
IAN HOOTON / Getty Images

18th Century

Surprisingly, the anti-vaccine movement predates the development of the first vaccine back in the 18th century.

Even before Edward Jenner began his landmark efforts to develop a smallpox vaccine in the 1790s, the practice of variolation—inoculating an uninfected person with pus from someone with smallpox—was used for centuries to prevent the disease in Africa, China, India, and the Ottoman Empire.

In fact, Onesimus, an African slave, was said to have taught Cotton Mather, the Puritan pamphleteer, about the technique in 1706.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu introduced variolation to England (referred to as inoculation in the West), having witnessed the practice in Turkey in 1717. As she encouraged the government to inoculate children against the deadly disease, an increasingly vicious debate ensued between proponents and opponents of the practice.

It is reported that "Pro-inoculators tended to write in the cool and factual tones encouraged by the Royal Society, with frequent appeals to reason, the modern progress of science and the courtesy subsisting among gentlemen. Anti-inoculators purposely wrote like demagogues, using heated tones and lurid scare stories to promote paranoia."

19th Century

Eventually, Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccine replaced variolation. Although it was safer and far more effective, there were may who objected vociferously to its use.

Much of the resistance stemmed from the British government's decision to make smallpox vaccination mandatory for children, compelling the population to comply by enacting severe fines that could accumulate with each refusal.

Shortly after the passage of Great Britain's Vaccination Act of 1853, the Anti-Vaccination League was created, followed by another protest movement, the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League, which formed after the age requirements were raised to include children 14 and under.

During this period, anti-vaccination leagues began to form in the United States as well. What each of these movements shared were attributes that continue to be seen among modern anti-vaxxers.

According to medical historians, opponents to the smallpox vaccine in the 19th century claimed that:

  • The vaccine didn't work.
  • The vaccine would make you sick and contained poisonous chemicals (namely carbolic acid found in the vaccine).
  • Mandatory vaccinations were akin to medical despotism.

In place of empirical evidence, the opponents pushed alternative medical practices, including herbalism and homeopathy, while distributing their own literature warning peoples of the "dangers" of vaccination.

Among the leading voices of the anti-vaccine movement of the 19th century was playwright George Barnard Shaw, who was an ardent proponent of homeopathy and eugenics.

From 1900 to the 1970s

Anti-vaccine groups didn’t change much in their tone or tactics from the 19th to early 20th century, in part because it would be another 100 years before the next vaccine—Louis Pasteur's rabies vaccine, developed in 1885—was introduced.

It would then be another 35 years before the next vaccine, a unique toxoid vaccine against diphtheria, was developed in the 1920s.

As other vaccines began to rapidly roll out in the latter part of the 20th century—for pertussis (whooping cough) in 1943, polio in 1955, measles in 1963, mumps in 1967, and rubella in 1971—the movement against vaccination also began to gain steam, fueled by claims of harms caused by vaccines.

In 1974, a study published in the Archives of Diseases in Children reported that 36 children vaccinated with the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine over 11 years developed neurological complications in the first 24 hours of receiving the shot. It was later found that the British researchers didn't see the children for months or years after penning the research.

Media coverage of the study triggered a wave of protests across the United Kingdom as well as a notable drop in vaccination rates. All of this occurred when a massive outbreak of pertussis infection was sweeping across the United Kingdom, affecting over 100,000 people.

From 1980 to 1999

The anti-vaxxing movement of the 1980s and 1990s was characterized by a new phenomenon: celebrity. This not only included popular figures of cinema and TV but self-professed "experts"—some of whom had no background in medicine or infectious diseases.

1982

Among the leading figures of the movement was Lea Thompson, a reporter who in 1982 created a national debate with her television documentary, DPT: Vaccine Roulette. The program, which linked a vast range of childhood disabilities to the DTaP vaccine, led to numerous lawsuits against the vaccine's manufacturers.

While many people regard Thompson's documentary as the spark that ignited the modern anti-vaccine movement, others had a hand in its genesis. Thompson's campaign against vaccines prompted the formation of the anti-vaxxing group Distraught Parents Together (DPT) that same year, which later evolved into the influential National Vaccine Information Center.

Among their accusations, the leadership of DPT claimed that the DTaP and hepatitis B vaccines caused sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

1984

In 1984, Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, a self-proclaimed "medical heretic" and one of the first anti-vaccine pediatricians, wrote the book The Medical Time Bomb of Immunization Against Disease in which he asserted that the pertussis vaccine could cause brain damage or retardation.

In addition to deriding vaccines, Mendelsohn spoke actively against the fluoridization of the water supply, coronary bypass surgery, the licensing of nutritionists, and routine breast cancer screening.

1990

The anti-vaxxing movement of the 1990s was fueled in part by an onslaught of syndicated TV talk shows, like Sally Jessy Rafael and the Maury Povich Show, that occasionally provided celebrity anti-vaxxers a platform to express their views. Unlike anti-vaxxers of the past, these shows allow vaccine opponents the means to reach millions.

This included The Cosby Show star Lisa Bonet who, during a 1990 appearance on the Phil Donahue Show, equated vaccinations to "alien microorganisms" that could cause "cancer, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and sudden infant death syndrome."

1994

Miss America Heather Whitestone, noted as the first deaf Miss America titleholder, went one step further by suggesting that her deafness was caused by the DTaP vaccine. Her pediatrician later set the record state by reporting that her deafness was the result of Hib meningitis, a vaccine-preventable disease.

1998

Arguably, the one study that turned the anti-vaccine movement into a veritable crusade was the publication of a 1998 study from British physician Andrew Wakefield, who claimed that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine predisposed children to neurological conditions, including autism.

It was later discovered that many of Wakefield's findings linking the MMR vaccine to autism were fraudulently manufactured, leading to the revocation of his medical license and the retraction of the article by the journal The Lancet 12 years after its publication.

Even so, to this day, there are many anti-vaxxing proponents who claim that vaccines, not only MMR, put a child at risk of "getting" autism.

21st Century

The tactics of the anti-vaccine groups in the 21st century aren’t that different from those of their 19th-century counterparts. They still include disinformation and the use of anecdotal evidence to support their claims.

But, with the rise of social media, anti-vaxxers are now able to directly target their audience and coalesce support without the constraints of traditional media. This has allowed anti-vaxxing "experts" and celebrities a platform by which to express their views.

Among celebrities who actively questioned or derided vaccines is comedian Jenny McCarthy, who in her three books on autism has perpetuated the myth that autism is linked to the MMR vaccine.

A Shift in Focus

Where the movement has also evolved is in its attacks on big pharma, exploiting the public's anger against the high prices of drugs and encouraging conspiracy theories (including that pharmaceutical companies are withholding cures so that they can make money off of chronic medications).

There was also a shift from actively deriding vaccines to proposing alternative approaches to vaccination.

In 2007, influenced by Thompson's book and her frequent appearances on television, pediatrician Bob Sears published The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for your Child in which he cast doubt on whether certain vaccines are needed. In 2014, he further asserted that "the disease danger is low enough where I think you can safely raise an unvaccinated child in today's society."

Unlike Thompson, Sears admits that vaccines work but suggests a "selective" approach to vaccines. This includes delaying or avoiding certain vaccines and following "Dr. Bob's" immunization schedule—one that is far different from that endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

COVID-19

Even faced with millions of infections and deaths from COVID-19, the introduction of effective vaccines has done little to quell the detractors who warn of the "dangers" of vaccination.

Among them, the aforementioned National Vaccine Information Center reported that a handful of deaths in Europe were directly caused by COVID-19 vaccinations, despite evidence that the deaths were caused by other pre-existing conditions.

Other vaccine opponents have suggested that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, both of which use messenger RNA (nRNA) to stimulate an immune response, can multiply out of control and alter a person's DNA.

As a result of the uncertainty fueled in part by misinformation and disinformation, even some healthcare workers have expressed hesitancy about COVID-19 vaccination.

Reversing these concerns are among the challenges faced by public health officials dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and one that will likely continue even after the pandemic is declared over.

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