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My first look at historical shifts in anti-vaccination rhetoric

There is a long history of opposition to vaccination, opposition that dates back to its earliest uses in Europe and North America to fight smallpox. Opponents have made claims ranging from accusations that vaccination interferes with “God’s will” to claims that it actually contributed to the spread of smallpox instead of preventing it.

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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There is a long history of opposition to vaccination, opposition that dates back to its earliest uses in Europe and North America to fight smallpox. Opponents have made claims ranging from accusations that vaccination interferes with “God’s will” to claims that it actually contributed to the spread of smallpox instead of preventing it.

The anti-vaccinationist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to incorporate opposition to vaccination within a larger program of opposition to government actions. In contrast, contemporary opponents of vaccination tend, according to Michael Fitzpatrick, to focus on particular vaccines, and “have no objection to state intervention in any other areas.” Many express “their concerns about vaccine safety with reference to mainstream medical science.” Fitzpatrick continues to distinguish anti-vaccinationists of the two eras:

Indeed some of the most prominent campaigns are careful to point out that they are not “anti-vaccine” but simply concerned to promote “informed choice” by parents. However disingenuous this posture may be, it reflects the general defensiveness of current campaigns and the limited scope of their resistance to medical authority. In contrast with the collective campaigns of the past, today’s have a strongly individualistic character. Rather than demanding the abandonment of the national immunization programme, they merely request the choice of mercury-free vaccines, or single agents rather than MMR [the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine].

While Fitzpatrick makes a useful distinction, not all vaccination opponents are so “defensive” as to “merely request” very limited changes to current vaccination approaches. Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), for example, situates her position in terms of “freedom and the human right to make informed, voluntary medical decisions” and attacks the “medical community [for being] committed to the utilitarian rationale that a minority of human beings can be sacrificed in service to the majority.” This is a much broader assault on vaccination than “merely request[ing] the choice of mercury-free vaccines,” and suggests that, even if anti-vaccination activists may choose to phrase their arguments in more limited terms, their beliefs often remain broadly aligned with ideas of personal liberty that similarly motivated their predecessors.

What other changes have there been to anti-vaccination rhetoric and beliefs over the last 150 years?