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Vaccination Resistance in Historical Perspective

The vaccination skepticism of today is rooted in postwar social movements, prompting a new generation of parents and children to question drugs and doctors.

So-called anti-vaccinationists have gotten a lot of attention lately. This summer they were in the spotlight for protesting passage of California's new law eliminating personal and religious exemptions to required vaccines. They were blamed for the nationwide measles outbreak that originated in Disneyworld earlier this year; before that, they were blamed for the upsurge in pertussis, or whooping cough, cases across the United States over the last few years. Follow the news and social-media chatter on such outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, and you'll see people who resist or delay vaccines for their children being called "ignorant," "selfish," "stupid," and much worse.

You'll also see, repeated over and over again, an explanation as to how this all began. Parents with vaccine worries, we're told, are those gullible enough to believe vaccine-skeptical celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and a now-discredited British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, who published a since-retracted study on a link between the MMR vaccine and autism back in 1998.

But this explanation is inaccurate. It also disregards history. Both the Wakefield study and McCarthy's prominence as a vaccine skeptic were the products—not the cause—of today's parental vaccine worries, which date back to the 1960s (and earlier). (1) The vaccination skepticism of today is rooted in the social movements of the postwar era, which prompted a new generation of parents (and their children) to question environmental contaminants, drugs, doctors, and authority in general. Moreover, today's vaccination skepticism is an understandable response to late-twentieth-century trends in childrearing, a steadily growing mandatory vaccination schedule, and continually expanding rationales for vaccinating against disease.

But before I explain all that, it's also worth noting that vaccination resistance is nothing new. Popular doubts about vaccines and suspicions about the motives behind their use are as old as vaccines themselves. The very first vaccine, which protected against smallpox, was developed in England in the late eighteenth century; it consisted of pus taken from a cowpox blister, which was inserted into a small cut in the skin. As word of the new procedure spread, it was met with enthusiasm but also dread. While many patients and physicians were eager to fend off one of that era's most feared diseases, many others balked at the prospect of contaminating their healthy bodies with disease matter from an animal.

When, in the early nineteenth century, European nation states began making smallpox vaccination mandatory—for their armies, for the poor, or for the populace in general—societies of anti-vaccinationists formed to protest what they saw as unequal treatment and undue infringement of individual liberty. Antivaccinationism spread to the United States later that same century, largely via visitors and immigrants from Europe, and it has been with us ever since. (2)