What Can the History of Antivax Movements Tell Us about the Future of COVID?Historians in the News
tags: public health, vaccines, medical history, COVID-19, Antivax
As soon as the vaccine mandate went into effect, people began to rebel. Some saw it as government overreach — what right did faraway lawmakers have to tell people what to do with their bodies?
Others worried that the vaccine was dangerous, or that they were being used as guinea pigs — what proof was there that this concoction even worked? Protests were staged, opinion pieces written, and parents resorted to subterfuge to avoid vaccinating their kids — they changed addresses to confuse officials, got fake vaccine certificates, and even tried to reverse the process once their kids had already been vaccinated.
This sounds like a tale of the Covid-19 era, with a vocal minority of vaccine opponents staging rallies and filing lawsuits across the United States. But all of the above also happened in 19th-century England, when the government mandated the smallpox vaccine for children. “As soon as that mandate is introduced, that’s when we get an organized anti-vaccination movement,” said Nadja Durbach, a history professor at the University of Utah. “That’s when people are like, ‘Oh my God, you cannot tell me to do this to my child.’”
The history of smallpox is a reminder that, while they may seem new, anti-vaccination movements are as old as vaccination itself. People’s reasons for opposing vaccines — concerns about side effects, a preference for natural remedies, fear of government overreach — haven’t changed that much either. Our current moment is actually just one more chapter in a story about vaccines and infectious diseases that’s been going on for hundreds of years.
If policymakers and people in power can recognize that, maybe they can find better ways of convincing the hesitant, fighting conspiracy theories, and regaining the trust of communities that have faced discrimination or abuse from the very authorities charged with protecting their health. That work is already happening, with doctors, faith leaders, and others on the ground building relationships with patients to find out their own particular histories and needs before they even bring up the vaccine.
“If you really want to get people on board with public health and public health measures, you have to address the sources of mistrust,” said Maya Goldenberg, a philosophy professor at the University of Guelph and the author of Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science.
The whole concept of vaccination derives from a centuries-old practice called inoculation or variolation, Durbach said. The idea was essentially to give yourself smallpox so you could control the severity and timing of the disease. Inoculation was practiced in the Middle East, China, and elsewhere for hundreds of years before it made its way to Europe, and it was eventually introduced to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, in the 18th century.
Methods of inoculation varied — often, doctors would insert a small amount of preserved smallpox scab under the skin of a healthy patient in order to give that person a controlled dose of the disease. The method was actually fairly effective, Durbach said, especially among the rich who could afford to check into a special facility where they would “be tended to and cared for and laze around” while they waited for the infection to clear. However, people would sometimes contract severe smallpox and die from the inoculation. Also, smallpox contracted through inoculation was still contagious, so the practice could cause unintended outbreaks.