Vaccines are one of the most important measures of preventative medicine to protect the population from diseases and infections. People become anti-vaxxers because they are driven by fear, and they are led by their ignorance and insurmountable stupidity. Prior to the advent of vaccination, smallpox was widespread, deadly, and all but untreatable given the state of medical knowledge at the time. In 1721, London was hit with a smallpox epidemic and in response, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the former ambassador to Turkey, had her 2 ½-year-old daughter variolated (inoculated) in front of an audience of physicians and members of the aristocracy, thus introducing the practice to British society. It had long been understood that survivors of smallpox carried life-long immunity, thus the practice of inoculation introduced smallpox matter directly from one person into the arm of another, generally resulting in a milder case than if one had caught the virus “wild.” Opposition to vaccines goes as far back as the 18th century when Reverend Edmund Massey in England called the vaccines “diabolical operations” in his 1772 sermon, “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation”. Since smallpox was accepted as an act of God against which there was no defense, Massey decried these vaccines as an attempt to oppose God’s punishments upon man for his sins.
In 1805, Dr William Rowley of Oxford wrote a pamphlet titled “Cow-Pox Inoculation no security against smallpox infection”, in which he mentioned the fate of a boy whose face seemed to be in a state of transforming following a vaccination. Rowley published outrageous photographs that indicated the smallpox vaccine was exposing recipients to “the diseases of beasts, filthy in their very nature and appearance, in the face, eyes, ears, with blindness and deafness, spreading their baneful influence over the whole body.” Rowley’s scaremongering pamphlet warned that those who received the vaccine risked developing “evil, blotches, ulcers, and mortification”, among other “beastly” diseases. He used scare tactics and alleged that a woman sprouted horns after receiving a vaccine dose. Rowley’s accounts were obviously untrue, but he kept asserting that vaccination caused disease and mutation previously unseen in humans and he backed this up with gruesome pictures.
The anti-vaccination movement began with the smallpox vaccine in England and the United States in the mid to late 1800s. British physician and scientist Edward Jenner experimented with cowpox, and he showed that he could protect a child from contracting smallpox if he infected them with lymph from a cowpox blister. Jenner being a country doctor heard tales that dairymaids were protected from smallpox naturally after having suffered from cowpox, and this is what led to his discovery. Jenner’s ideas were novel for his time, but they were met with immediate public criticism. Jenner lacked the conceptual framework needed to understand precisely how his vaccine worked, as immune response was still unknown to science, so he was not able to explain the mechanics behind it, even though it worked. Understanding this mystery was still over half a century away, with no explanation until the 1860s when Louis Pasteur’s experiments shed light on such microorganisms as bacteria and the variola virus responsible for smallpox. It would not be until the 1890s that germ theory would be widely accepted.
The rationale for this criticism varied, and included sanitary, religious, scientific, and political objections. There was a general distrust for the medical community at this time and some of the local clergy believed the vaccine was unchristian, because it came from an animal. There were others that saw this vaccine as a violation of their personal liberty. Some felt it was just plain wrong to use diseased matter from an animal to intentionally infect an otherwise healthy person. Since the subject always retained a small scar where they had been vaccinated, it was deemed to be the mark of the beast. Cartoonists frequently depicted the cowpox-derived vaccine as a golden calf that would be the downfall of modern society at the hands of those who foolishly embraced its worship. The practice of introducing smallpox matter directly from one person into another brought up the question of side effects and vaccine injury. This original form of inoculation against smallpox, was associated with a 1-3% death rate, and persons who had undergone the procedure actively shed the smallpox virus which allowed the disease to spread. Vaccination using Jenner’s cowpox strain was much safer, with death from the procedure being extremely rare, although not unheard of. Most who received it suffered from a mild fever and discomfort for a few weeks and recovered with no further issues. There were, however, some who developed long-term symptoms that were attributed to the vaccination. The most common of these were cognitive issues observed in children whose level of intelligence suffered a decline after vaccination. Parents were not wholly unjustified in their fears that an injection meant to ward off one deadly disease might simply lead to their child being infected with another one. Vaccine opponents felt a strong moral obligation to put a halt to vaccination at all costs and they used misinformation to spread their word.
In the United Kingdom, the Vaccination Act of 1853 ordered mandatory vaccination for infants up to 3 months old, and the Act of 1867 extended this age requirement to 14 years, adding penalties for those that refused to take the vaccine. Smallpox was already in retreat by the time this law was passed, although it had killed more than 5000 people every year and left many more disfigured with pockmarks, but by the 1860s, two-thirds of babies were vaccinated. The laws were met with immediate resistance from citizens who demanded the right to control their bodies and those of their children, and this led to the Anti Vaccination League and the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League being formed in response to the mandatory laws, and this became the largest medical resistance campaign ever mounted in Europe. Numerous anti-vaccination journals sprang up and this ended up contributing to the demonization of vaccinations by news and entertainment outlets.
Attempts to discredit the safety and reliability of vaccination, whether this is against measles or against COVID still persist today, using the arguments that were made before, claiming that it is ineffective, it comes with ghastly side effects, they still feel this violates their personal liberties and goes against their religion. Anti-vaxxers are not much different from people who accept science, so if they get infected with Covid-19, they risk the chance of dying like everyone else. Some of them feel that the people who get vaccinated are like sheep blindly doing what they’re told. They go around mocking the vaccinations and by doing this, they are clearly tempting fate.
Written for Wednesday Thoughts where the phrase this week is “Tempting Fate”.